At the completion of this chapter, the reader will be able to do the following:
Define energy in the context of production of injury.
Describe the association between the laws of motion, energy, and the kinematics
Describe the relationship of injury and energy exchange to speed.
Discuss energy exchange and the production of cavitation.
Given the description of a motor vehicle crash, use kinematics to predict the likely
injury pattern for an unrestrained occupant.
Associate the principles of energy exchange with the pathophysiology of injury to
the head, spine, thorax, abdomen, and extremities resulting from that exchange.
Describe the specific injuries and their causes as related to interior and exterior
Describe the function of restraint systems for vehicle occupants.
Relate the laws of motion and energy to mechanisms other than motor vehicle
crashes (e.g. blasts, falls).
Describe the five phases of blast injury and the injuries produced in each phase.
Describe the differences in the production of injury with lowmedium-, and high-energy weapons.
Discuss the relationship of the frontal surface of an
impacting object to energy exchange and injury
Integrate principles of the kinematics of
trauma into patient assessment.
✓ Describe the recommended card and
procedure for documenting TCCC care on
7/20/10 10:16:26 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
You and your partner are dispatched to a two-car collision. The day is warm and sunny. The scene is secured by law
enforcement when you arrive.
On arrival, you confirm that there are only two cars involved. The first car is in the ditch on the right side of the road and
has impacted a tree at the passenger-side door. There are bullet holes in the left-front door. At least three holes are visible
to you. There are two occupants in the vehicle.
The other car veered off the left side of the road and hit a utility pole, centered between the two headlights. There are
two people in that car. It is an old vehicle without air bags. There is a bent steering wheel, and, there is a bull’s-eye fracture
of the windshield on the driver’s side. As you look into the car on the passenger side, you find an indentation in the lower
part of the passenger-side dash. None of the passengers in either vehicle are wearing a safety belt. You are dealing with
four injured patients—two in each car—and all have remained in the cars.
You are the senior EMT-paramedic on the scene. It is your responsibility to assess the patients and assign priority for
transportation. Take the patients one at a time and describe them based on the kinematics.
How would you describe each patient based upon the kinematics?
What injuries do you expect to find?
nexpected traumatic injuries are responsible for more
than 169,000 deaths in the United States each year.1
Vehicle collisions accounted for more than 37,000
deaths and more than 4 million injured persons in 2008.2
This problem is not limited to the United States; other countries have an equal frequency of vehicular trauma, although
the vehicles may be different. Penetrating trauma from guns
is very high in the United States. In 2006, there were almost
31,000 deaths from ﬁrearms. Of these, over 13,000 were
homicides.1 In 2008, there were over 78,000 nonfatal ﬁrearm
injuries reported.3 Blast injuries are a major cause of injuries
in many countries, whereas penetrating injuries from knives
are prominent in others. Successful management of trauma
patients depends on identiﬁcation of injuries or potential
injuries and the use of good assessment skills. It is frequently
difﬁcult to determine the exact injury produced, but understanding the potential for injury and the potential for signiﬁcant blood loss will allow the critical-thinking process of the
provider to recognize this likelihood and make appropriate
triage, management, and transportation decisions.
The management of any patient begins (after initial resuscitation) with the history of the patient’s injury. In trauma, the
history is the story of the impact and the energy exchange that
resulted from this impact. 4An understanding of the energy
exchange process will lead to the suspicion of 95% of the
When the provider, at any level of care, does not understand the principles of kinematics or the mechanisms
involved, injuries may be missed. An understanding of these
principles will increase the level of suspicion based on the
pattern of injuries likely associated with the survey of the
scene on arrival. This information and the suspected injuries
can be used to properly assess the patient on the scene and
can be transmitted to the physicians and nurses in the emergency department (ED). At the scene and en route, these suspected injuries can be managed to provide the most appropriate patient care and “do no further harm.”
Injuries that are not obvious but are still severe can be
fatal if they are not managed at the scene and en route to the
trauma center or appropriate hospital. Knowing where to look
and how to assess for injuries is as important as knowing what
to do after ﬁnding injuries. A complete, accurate history of a
traumatic incident and proper interpretation of this data will
provide such information. Most of a patient’s injuries can be
predicted by a proper survey of the scene, even before examining the patient.
This chapter discusses the general principles and mechanical principles involved in the kinematics of trauma, and the
sections on the regional effects of blunt and penetrating trauma
address local injury pathophysiology. The general principles
are the laws of physics that govern energy exchange and the
general effects of the energy exchange. Mechanical principles
address the interaction of the human body with the components of the crash for blunt trauma (e.g. motor vehicles, threeand two-wheeled vehicles, and falls), penetrating trauma,
and blasts. A crash is the energy exchange that occurs when
an object with energy, usually something solid, impacts the
human body. It is not only the collision of a motor vehicle, but
also the crash of a falling body onto the pavement, the impact
of a bullet on the external and internal tissues of the body, and
7/20/10 10:16:30 AM
the overpressure and debris of a blast. All of these involve
energy exchange, all result in injury, all involve potentially
life-threatening conditions, and all require the correct management by a knowledgeable and insightful prehospital care
A traumatic event is divided into three phases: precrash,
crash, and postcrash. Again, the term crash does not necessarily mean a vehicular crash. The crash of a vehicle into a
pedestrian, a missile (bullet) into the abdomen, and a construction worker striking the asphalt after a fall are all examples of a crash. In each case, energy is exchanged between a
moving object and the tissue of the human body or between
the moving human body and a stationary object.
The precrash phase includes all of the events that preceded the incident. Conditions that are present before the
incident, but important in the management of the patient’s
injuries, are assessed as part of the precrash history. These
include such things as a patient’s acute or pre-existing medical conditions (and medications to treat those conditions),
ingestion of recreational substances (illegal and prescription
drugs, alcohol, etc.), and a patient’s state of mind. Typically,
young trauma patients do not have chronic illnesses. With
older patients, however, medical conditions that are present
before the trauma event can cause serious complications in
the prehospital assessment and management of the patient
and can signiﬁcantly inﬂuence the outcome. For example, the
elderly driver of a vehicle that has struck a utility pole may
have chest pain indicative of a myocardial infarction (heart
attack). Did the driver hit the utility pole and have a heart
attack, or did he have a heart attack and then strike the utility
pole? Does the patient take medication (e.g. beta blocker) that
will prevent elevation of the pulse in shock? Most of these
conditions not only directly inﬂuence the assessment and
management strategies discussed in Chapters 4 and 5, but are
important in overall patient care as well, even if they do not
necessarily inﬂuence the kinematics of the crash.
The crash phase begins at the time of impact between
one moving object and a second object. The second object
can be moving or stationary and can be either an object or
a person. Three impacts occur in most vehicular crashes:
(1) the impact of the two objects; (2) the impact of the occupants into the vehicle; and (3) the impact of the vital organs
inside the occupants. For example, when a vehicle strikes
a tree, the ﬁrst impact is the collision of the vehicle with
the tree. The second impact is the occupant of the vehicle
striking the steering wheel or windshield. If the patient is
restrained, an impact occurs between the occupant and the
seat belt. The third impact is between the patient’s internal
organs and his or her chest wall, abdominal wall, or skull.
(In a fall, only the second and third impacts are involved.)
Kinematics of Trauma
The direction in which the energy exchange occurs, the
amount of energy that is exchanged, and the effect that these
forces have on the patient are all important considerations as
During the postcrash phase the information gathered
about the crash and precrash phases is used to assess and
manage a patient. This phase begins as soon as the energy
from the crash is absorbed. The onset of the complications
from life-threatening trauma can be slow or fast (or these
complications can be prevented or signiﬁcantly reduced),
depending in part on the care provided at the scene and
en route to the hospital. In the postcrash phase, the understanding of the kinematics of trauma, the index of suspicion
regarding injuries, and strong assessment skills all become
crucial to the patient outcome.
Simply stated, the precrash phase is the prevention phase.
The crash phase is that portion of the traumatic event that
involves the exchange of energy or the Kinematics (mechanics of energy). Lastly, the postcrash is the patient care phase.
To understand the effects of the forces that produce bodily
injury, the prehospital care provider needs ﬁrst to understand
two components—energy exchange and human anatomy.
For example, in a motor vehicle crash (MVC), what does the
scene look like? Who hit what and at what speed? How long
was the stopping time? Were the victims using appropriate
restraint devices such as seat belts? Did the air bag deploy?
Were the children restrained properly in seats, or were they
unrestrained and thrown about the vehicle? Were occupants
thrown from the vehicle? Did they strike objects? If so, how
many objects and what was the nature of those objects? These
and many other questions must be answered if the prehospital care provider is to understand the exchange of forces that
took place and translate this information into a prediction of
injuries and appropriate patient care.
The process of surveying the scene to determine what
forces and motion were involved and what injuries might
have resulted from those forces is called kinematics. Because
kinematics is based on fundamental principles of physics, an
understanding of the pertinent laws of physics is necessary.
The initial component in obtaining a history is to evaluate
the events that occurred at the time of the crash (Figure 4-1),
to estimate the energy that was exchanged with the human
body, and to make a gross approximation of the speciﬁc conditions that resulted.
Laws of Energy and Motion
Newton’s ﬁrst law of motion states that a body at rest will
remain at rest and a body in motion will remain in motion
unless acted on by an outside force. The skier in Figure 4-2
7/20/10 10:16:31 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-1 Evaluating the scene of an incident is critical.
FIGURE 4-3 Vehicle stops suddenly against a dirt
Such information as direction of impact, passengercompartment intrusion, and amount of energy exchange
provides insight into the possible injuries of the occupants.
Although an older-model vehicle, this photograph shows the
concept of mechanism of injury.
FIGURE 4-2 A skier was stationary until the energy from
gravity moved him down the slope. Once in motion, although
he leaves the ground, the momentum will keep him in motion
until he hits something or returns to the ground, and the
transfer of energy (friction or a collision) causes him to come
to a stop.
was stationary until the energy from gravity moved him down
the slope. Once in motion, although he leaves the ground, he
will remain in motion until he hits something or returns to
the ground and comes to a stop.
As previously mentioned, in any collision, when the
body of the potential patient is in motion, there are three
collisions: 1) the vehicle hitting an object, moving or stationary; 2) the potential patient hitting the inside of the
vehicle, crashing into an object, or being struck by energy in
an explosion; and 3) the internal organs interacting with the
walls of a compartment of the body or being torn loose from
their supporting structures. An example is a person sitting
in the front seat of a vehicle. When the vehicle hits a tree
and stops, the unrestrained person continues in motion—at
the same rate of speed—until he or she hits the steering column, dashboard, and windshield. The impact with these
objects stops the forward motion of the torso or head, but
the internal organs of the person remain in motion until the
organs hit the inside of the chest wall, abdominal wall, or
skull, halting the forward motion.
The law of conservation of energy combined with Newton’s second law of motion describes that energy cannot be
created or destroyed but can be changed in form. The motion
of the vehicle is a form of energy. To start the vehicle, gasoline explodes within the cylinder of the engine. This moves
the pistons. The motion of the pistons is transferred by a set
of gears to the wheels, which grasp the road as they turn and
impart motion to the vehicle. To stop the vehicle, the energy
of its motion must be changed to another form, such as heating up the brakes or crashing into an object and bending the
frame. When a driver brakes, the energy of motion is converted into the heat of friction (thermal energy) by the brake
pads on the brake drums/disk and by the tires on the roadway. The vehicle decelerates.
Just as the mechanical energy of a vehicle that crashes into
a wall is dissipated by the bending of the frame or other parts
of the vehicle (Figure 4-3), the energy of motion of the organs
and the structures inside of the body must be dissipated as
these organs stop their forward motion. The same concepts
apply to the human body when it is stationary and comes into
contact and interacts with an object in motion such as a knife,
a bullet, or a baseball bat.
Kinetic energy is a function of an object’s mass and velocity. Although they are not exactly the same, a victim’s weight
is used to represent his or her mass. Likewise, speed is used to
represent velocity (which really is speed and direction). The
7/20/10 10:16:31 AM
relationship between weight and speed as it affects kinetic
energy is as follows:
Kinetic energy ϭ One-half the mass times the velocity
KE ϭ 1⁄2mv2
Thus, the kinetic energy involved when a 150-lb (68-kg)
person travels at 30 mph (48 km/hr) is calculated as follows:
KE ϭ 67,500 units
For the purpose of this discussion, no speciﬁc physical unit
of measure (e.g. foot-pounds, joules) is used. The units are used
merely to illustrate how this formula affects the change in the
amount of energy. As just shown, a 150-lb (68-kg) person travelling at 30 mph (48 km/hr) would have 67,500 units of energy
that has to be converted to another form when he or she stops.
This change takes the form of damage to the vehicle and injury
to the person in it, unless the energy dissipation can take some
less harmful form, such as on a seat belt or into an air bag.
Which factor in the formula, however, has the greatest
effect on the amount of kinetic energy produced: mass or
velocity? Consider adding 10 lbs to the 150-lb person travelling at 30 mph
(48 km/hr) in the prior example now making the mass
equal to 160 lbs (72 kg):
KE ϭ 72,000 units
As the mass has increased, so has the amount of kinetic
Finally, returning to this same example of a 150-lb (68kg) person, instead of increasing the mass by 10, if the speed
is increased by 10 mph (16 km/hr), the kinetic energy is as
KE ϭ 120,000 units
These calculations demonstrate that increasing the velocity
(speed) increases the kinetic energy much more than increasing
the mass. Much more energy exchange will occur (and, therefore, produce greater injury to either the occupant or the vehicle
or both) in a high-speed crash than in a crash at a slower speed.
The velocity is exponential and the mass is linear; this is critical
even when there is a great mass disparity between two objects.
Mass ؋ acceleration ϭ force ϭ mass ؋ deceleration
Kinematics of Trauma
Force (energy) is required to put a structure into motion.
This force (energy) is required to create a speciﬁc speed. The
speed imparted is dependent on the weight (mass) of the
structure. Once this energy is passed on to the structure and
it is placed in motion, the motion will remain until the energy
is given up (Newton’s ﬁrst law of motion). This loss of energy
will place other components in motion (tissue particles) or be
lost as heat (dissipated into the brake disks on the wheels).
An example of this process is the gun and the patient. In the
chamber of a gun is a cartridge that contains gunpowder. If
this gunpowder is ignited, it burns rapidly creating energy
that pushes the bullet out of the barrel at a great speed. This
speed is equivalent to the weight of the bullet and the amount
of energy produced by the burning of the gunpowder or force.
To slow down (Newton’s ﬁrst law of motion), the bullet must
give up its energy into the structure that it hits. This will produce an explosion in the tissue that is equal to the explosion that occurred in the chamber of the gun when the initial
speed was given to the bullet. The same phenomenon occurs
in the moving automobile, the patient falling from a building,
or the explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED).
Another important factor in a crash is the stopping distance. The shorter the stopping distance and the quicker the
rate of that stop, the more energy transferred to the patient and
the more damage or injury that is done to the patient. A vehicle that stops against a brick wall or one that stops when the
brakes are applied dissipates the same amount of energy, just
in a different manner. The rate of energy exchange (into the
vehicle body or into the brake disks) is different and occurs
over a different distance. In the ﬁrst instance, the energy is
absorbed in a very short distance and amount of time by the
bending of the frame of the vehicle. In the latter case, the
energy is absorbed over a longer distance and period of time
by the heat of the brakes. The forward motion of the occupant of the vehicle (energy) is absorbed in the ﬁrst instance
by damage to the soft tissue and bones of the occupant. In the
latter case, the energy is dissipated, along with the energy of
the vehicle, into the brakes.
This inverse relationship between stopping distance and
injury also applies to falls. A person has a better chance of surviving a fall if he or she lands on a compressible surface, such
as deep, powder snow. The same fall terminating on a hard
surface, such as concrete, can produce more severe injuries.
The compressible material (i.e. the snow) increases the stopping distance and absorbs at least some of the energy rather
than allowing all of the energy to be absorbed by the body.
The result is decreased injury and damage to the body. This
principle also applies to other types of crashes. In addition,
an unrestrained driver will be more severely injured than a
restrained driver. The restraint system, rather than the body,
will absorb a signiﬁcant portion of the energy transfer.
Therefore, once an object is in motion and has energy in
the form of motion, in order for it to come to a complete rest,
the object must lose all of its energy by converting the energy
to another form or transferring it to another object. For exam-
7/20/10 10:16:33 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-4 The energy exchange from a moving vehicle to a
FIGURE 4-5 The fist absorbs more energy colliding with the
pedestrian crushes tissue and imparts speed and energy to the
pedestrian to knock the victim away from the point of impact.
Injury to the patient can occur at the point of impact as the
pedestrian is hit by the vehicle and as the pedestrian is thrown
to the ground or into another vehicle.
dense brick wall than with the less dense feather pillow, which
dissipates the force.
ple, if a vehicle strikes a pedestrian, the pedestrian is knocked
away from the vehicle (Figure 4-4). Although the vehicle
is somewhat slowed by the impact, the greater force of the
vehicle imparts much more acceleration to the lighter-weight
pedestrian than it loses in speed because of the mass difference between the two. The softer body parts of the pedestrian
versus the harder body parts of the vehicle also means more
damage to the pedestrian than to the vehicle.
colliding with the dense brick wall than with the less dense
feather pillow (Figure 4-5).
Simplistically, the body has three different types of tissue densities: air density (much of the lung and some portions of the intestine), water density (muscle and most solid
organs; e.g. liver, spleen), and solid density (bone). Therefore,
the amount of energy exchange (with resultant injury) will
depend on which type of organ is impacted.
Energy Exchange between a Solid Object
and the Human Body
When the human body collides with a solid object, or vice
versa, the number of body tissue particles that are impacted
by the solid object determines the amount of energy exchange
that takes place. This transfer of energy produces the amount
of damage (injury) that occurs to the patient. The number of
tissue particles affected is determined by (1) the density (particles per volume) of the tissue and (2) the size of the contact
area of the impact.
The denser a tissue is (measured in particles per volume), the
greater the number of particles that will be hit by a moving
object and, therefore, the greater the rate and the total amount
of energy exchanged. Driving a ﬁst into a feather pillow and
driving a ﬁst at the same speed into a brick wall will produce
different effects on the hand. The ﬁst absorbs more energy
Wind exerts pressure on a hand when it is extended out of
the window of a moving vehicle. When the palm of the hand
is horizontal and parallel to the direction of the ﬂow through
the wind, some backward pressure is exerted on the front of
the hand (ﬁngers) as the particles of air strike the hand. Rotating the hand 90 degrees to a vertical position places a larger
surface area into the wind; thus, more air particles make contact with the hand, increasing the amount of force on it.
For trauma events, the impact surface area can be modiﬁed by any change in the impact surface area. Examples of
this effect on the human body include the front of an automobile, a baseball bat, riﬂe bullet or shotgun. The automobile’s front surface contacts a large portion of the victim. A
baseball bat contacts a smaller area and a bullet contacts a
very small area. The amount of energy exchange that would
produce damage to the patient depends then on the energy of
the object and the density of the tissue in the pathway of the
7/20/10 10:16:33 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-6 A. The energy of a cue ball is transferred to each of the other balls. B. The energy exchange pushes the balls apart
to create a cavity.
If all of the impact energy is in a small area and this force
exceeds the resistance of the skin, the object is forced though
the skin. This is the deﬁnition of penetrating trauma. If the
force is spread out over a larger area and the skin it not penetrated then it ﬁts the deﬁnition of blunt trauma. In either
instance, a cavity in the patient is created by the force of
the impacting object. Even with something like a bullet, the
impact surface area can be different based on such factors as
bullet size, its motion (tumble) within the body, deformation
(“mushroom”), and fragmentation.
The basic mechanics of energy exchange are relatively simple. The impact on the tissue particles accelerates those tissue
particles away from the point of impact. These tissues then
become moving objects themselves and crash into other tissue particles, producing a “falling domino” effect. A common
game that provides a visual effect of cavitation is pool.
The cue ball is driven down the length of a pool table by
the force of the muscles in the arm. The cue ball crashes into
the racked balls at the other end of the table. The energy from
the arm into the cue ball is thus transferred onto each of the
racked balls (Figure 4-6). The cue ball gives up its energy to the
other balls. The other balls began to move while the cue ball,
which has lost its energy, slows or even stops. The other balls
take on this energy as motion and move away from the impact
point. A cavity has been created where the rack of balls once
was. The same kind of energy exchange occurs when a bowling ball rolls down the alley, hitting the set of pins at the other
end. The result of this energy exchange is a cavity. This sort of
energy exchange occurs in both blunt and penetrating trauma.
Similarly, when a solid object strikes the human body or
when the human body is in motion and strikes a stationary
object, the tissue particles of the human body are knocked out
of their normal position, creating a hole or cavity. Thus, this
process is called cavitation.
Two types of cavities are created:
1. A temporary cavity is caused by the stretching of the tissues that occurs at the time of impact. Because of the
elastic properties of the body’s tissues, some or all of the
contents of the temporary cavity return to their previous
position. The size, shape, and portions of the cavity that
become part of the permanent damage depend on the
tissue type, the elasticity of the tissue, and how much
rebound of tissue occurs. This extent of this cavity is usually not visible when the prehospital or hospital provider
examines the patient, even seconds after the impact.
7/20/10 10:16:34 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
Damaged tissue torn
and stretched as
missile passes through
FIGURE 4-7 Damage to tissue is greater than the permanent cavity that remains from a missile injury. The faster or heavier the
missile, the larger the temporary cavity and the greater the zone of tissue damage.
2. A permanent cavity is left after the temporary cavity collapses and is the visible part of the tissue destruction. In
addition, there is a crush cavity that is produced by the
direct impact of the object on the tissue. Both of these
can be seen when the patient is examined5 (Figure 4-7).
The amount of the temporary cavity that remains as a permanent cavity is related to the elasticity (stretch ability) of the
tissue involved. For example, forcefully swinging a baseball bat
into a steel drum leaves a dent, or cavity, in its side. Swinging
the same baseball bat with the same force into a mass of foam
rubber of similar size and shape will leave no dent once the
bat is removed (Figure 4-8). The difference is elasticity—the
foam rubber is more elastic than the steel drum. The human
body is more like the foam rubber than the steel drum. If a
person punches a ﬁst into another person’s abdomen, he or she
would feel the ﬁst go in. However, when the person pulls the
ﬁst away, a dent is not left. Similarly, a baseball bat swung into
the chest will leave no obvious cavity in the thoracic wall, but
it would cause damage, both from direct contact and the cavity
created by the energy exchange. The history of the incident and
its interpretation will provide the information needed to determine the potential size of the temporary cavity at the time of
impact. The organs or the structures involved predict injuries.
When the trigger of a loaded gun is pulled, the ﬁring pin
strikes the cap and produces an explosion in the cartridge. The
energy created by this explosion is exchanged onto the bullet,
which speeds from the muzzle of the weapon. The bullet now
has energy, or force (acceleration ϫ mass ϭ force). Once such
force is imparted, the bullet cannot slow down until acted on
by an outside force (Newton’s ﬁrst law of motion). In order for
the bullet to stop inside the human body, an explosion must
occur within the tissues that is equivalent to the explosion
in the weapon (acceleration ϫ mass ϭ force ϭ mass ϫ deceleration) (Figure 4-9). This explosion is the result of energy
exchange accelerating the tissue particles out of their normal
position, creating a cavity.
Blunt and Penetrating Trauma
A. Swinging a baseball bat into a steel drum
leaves a dent, or cavity, in its side. B. Swinging a baseball bat
into a person usually leaves no visible cavity as the elasticity of
the trunk returns the body back to its normal shape.
Trauma is generally classiﬁed as either blunt or penetrating.
However, the energy exchange and the injury produced are
similar in both types of trauma. Cavitation occurs in both;
only the type and direction are different. The only real difference is penetration of the skin. If an object’s entire energy
is concentrated on one small area of skin, the skin likely
will tear, and the object will enter the body and create a
more concentrated energy exchange along the pathway. This
can result in greater destructive power to one area. A larger
object whose energy is dispersed over a much larger area of
7/20/10 10:16:36 AM
Mass ϫ acceleration
Kinematics of Trauma
Mass ϫ deceleration
FIGURE 4-9 As a bullet travels through tissue, its kinetic energy is transferred to the tissue that it comes in contact with,
accelerating it away from the bullet.
skin may not penetrate the skin. The damage will be distributed over a larger area of the body, and the injury pattern will be less localized. An example is difference in the
impact of a large truck into a pedestrian versus a gunshot
impact (Figure 4-10).
The cavitation in blunt trauma is frequently only a temporary cavity and is directed away from the point of impact. Penetrating trauma creates both a permanent and a temporary cavity.
The temporary cavity that is created will spread away from the
pathway of this missile in both frontal and lateral directions.
FIGURE 4-10 The force from a collision of a vehicle with a
person is generally distributed over a large area, whereas the
force of the collision between a bullet and person is localized
to a very small area and results in penetration of the body and
This section is divided into two major parts. The mechanical and structural effects on the vehicle of a crash are discussed ﬁrst, and then the internal effects on the organs and
body structures are addressed. Both are important and must
be understood to properly assess the trauma patient and the
potential injuries that exist after the crash.
The on-scene observations of the probable circumstances
that led to a crash resulting in blunt trauma provide clues
as to the severity of the injuries and the potential organs
involved. The factors to assess are: (1) direction of the impact;
(2) external damage to the vehicle (type and severity); and (3)
internal damage (e.g. occupant-compartment intrusion, steering wheel/column bending, windshield bull’s-eye fractures,
mirror damage, dashboard knee impacts).
In blunt trauma, two forces are involved in the impact:
shear and compression, both of which may result in cavitation. Shear is the result of one organ or structure (or part of an
organ or structure) changing speed faster than another organ
or structure (or part of an organ or structure). This difference
in acceleration (or deceleration) causes the parts to separate
and tear. Compression is the result of an organ or structure (or
part of an organ or structure) being directly squeezed between
other organs or structures. Injury can result from any type of
impact, such as MVCs (vehicle or motorcycle), pedestrian collisions with vehicles, falls, sports injuries, or blast injuries.
All of these mechanisms are discussed separately, followed
by the results of this energy exchange on the speciﬁc anatomy
in each of the body regions.
As discussed previously in this chapter, three collisions
occur in blunt trauma. The ﬁrst is the collision of the vehicle
into another object. The second is the collision that occurs
when the potential patient strikes the inside of the vehicular
passenger compartment, strikes the ground at the end of a fall,
or is stuck by the force created in an explosion. The third is
when the structures within the various regions of the body
(head, chest, abdomen, etc.) strike the wall of that region or
are torn (shear force) from their attachment within this com-
7/20/10 10:16:39 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
the driver’s torso stops moving forward, but many internal
organs keep moving (Newton’s ﬁrst law again) until they
strike another organ or cavity wall or are suddenly stopped
by a ligament, fascia, vessel, or muscle. This is the third
One method to estimate the potential for injury to the
occupant is to look at the vehicle and determine which of
the ﬁve types of collisions occurred, the energy exchange
involved, and the direction of the impact. The occupant
receives the same type of force as the vehicle from the same
direction as the vehicle. The amount of force exchanged with
the occupant, however, may be somewhat reduced by absorption of energy by the vehicle.
FIGURE 4-11 As a vehicle impacts a utility pole, the front
of the car stops but the rear portion of the vehicle continues
traveling forward, causing deformation of the vehicle.
partment. The ﬁrst of these will be discussed as it relates to
vehicle crashes, falls, and explosions. The latter two will be
discussed in the speciﬁc regions involved.
Motor Vehicle Crashes
Many forms of blunt trauma occur, but MVCs (including motorcycle crashes) are the most common. In 2008, 86% of fatalities
were vehicle occupants. The remaining 14% were pedestrians,
cyclists, and other nonoccupants, as reported by the National
Highway Trafﬁc Safety Administration (NHTSA).6
MVCs can be divided into the following ﬁve types:
Although each pattern has variations, accurate identiﬁcation of the ﬁve patterns will provide insight into other, similar
types of crashes.
In MVCs and other rapid-deceleration mechanisms (e.g.
snowmobiles and motorcycles), in boating crashes, and in
falls from heights, three collisions occur: (1) the vehicle collides with an object or with another vehicle; (2) the unrestrained occupant collides with the inside of the vehicle; and
(3) the occupant’s internal organs collide with one another or
with the wall of the compartment that contains them.
An example is a vehicle hitting a tree. The ﬁrst collision
occurs when the vehicle strikes the tree. The vehicle stops
but the unrestrained driver keeps moving forward (consistent with Newton’s ﬁrst law of motion). The second collision
occurs when the driver hits the steering wheel, windshield
and/or some other part of the occupant compartment. Now,
In Figure 4-11, for example, the vehicle has hit a utility pole
in the center of the car. The impact point stopped its forward
motion, but the rest of the car continued forward until the
energy was absorbed by the bending of the car. The same
type of motion occurs to the driver resulting in injury. The
stable steering column is impacted by the chest, perhaps in
the center of the sternum. Just as the car continued in forward
motion, signiﬁcantly deforming the front of the vehicle, so too
will the driver’s chest. As the sternum stops forward motion
against the dash, the posterior thoracic wall continues until
the energy is absorbed by the bending and possible fracture of
the ribs. This process will also crush the heart and the lungs
trapped between the sternum and the vertebral column and
the posterior thoracic wall.
The amount of damage to the vehicle indicates the approximate speed of the vehicle at the time of impact. The greater
the intrusion into the body of the vehicle, the greater is the
speed at the time of impact. The greater the vehicle speed,
the greater the energy exchange and the more likely the occupants are to be injured.
Although the vehicle suddenly ceases to move forward
in a frontal impact, the occupant continues to move and
will follow one of two possible paths: either up-and-over or
The use of a seat belt and the deployment of an air bag or
restraint system will absorb some or most of the energy, thus
reducing the injury to the victim. For clarity and simplicity of
discussion, the occupant is these examples will be assumed
to be without restraint.
Up-and-Over Path. In this sequence, the body’s forward motion
carries it up and over the steering wheel (Figure 14-12). The
head is usually the lead body portion striking the windshield, windshield frame, or roof. The head then stops its
forward motion. The torso continues in motion until its
energy/force is absorbed along the spine. The cervical spine
is the least protected segment of the spine. The chest or abdomen then collides with the steering column, depending on
the position of the torso. Impact of the chest into the steering column produces thoracic cage, cardiac, lung, and aortic
7/20/10 10:16:40 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-12 Configuration of the seat and position of the
occupant can direct the initial force on the upper torso, with
the head as the lead point.
FIGURE 4-13 Organs can tear away from their point of
attachment to the abdominal wall. The spleen, kidney, and
small intestine are particularly susceptible to these types of
injuries (see Regional Effects of Blunt Trauma). Impact of the
abdomen into the steering column can compress and crush
the solid organs, produce overpressure injuries (especially
to the diaphragm), and rupture of the hollow organs. The
kidneys, spleen, and liver are also subject to shear injury as
the abdomen strikes the steering wheel and abruptly stops.
An organ may be torn from its normal anatomic restraints
and supporting tissues. For example, the continued forward motion of the kidneys after the vertebral column has
stopped moving produces shear along the attachment of the
organs at their blood supply. The aorta and vena cava are
tethered tightly to the posterior abdominal wall and vertebral column. The continued forward motion of the kidneys
can stretch the renal vessels to the point of rupture (Figure
4-13). A similar action may tear the aorta in the chest as
the unattached arch becomes the tightly adhered descending
aorta (Figure 4-14).
angulates and fractures the ankle joint. More often, however,
the knees are already bent, and the force is not directed to the
ankle. Therefore, the knees strike the dashboard.
The knee has two possible impact points against the dashboard, the tibia and the femur (Figure 4-16A). If the tibia hits
the dashboard and stops ﬁrst, the femur remains in motion and
overrides it. A dislocated knee, with torn ligaments, tendons,
and other supporting structures, can result. Because the popliteal artery lies close to the knee joint, dislocation of the joint
is frequently associated with injury to the vessel. The artery
can be completely disrupted or the lining alone (intima) may
be damaged (Figure 4-16B). In either case, a blood clot may
form in the injured vessel, resulting in signiﬁcantly decreased
blood ﬂow to the leg tissues below the knee. Early recognition
of the knee injury and the potential for vascular injury will
alert the physicians to the need for assessment of the vessel
in this area.
Early identiﬁcation and treatment of such a popliteal
artery injury signiﬁcantly decreases the complications of
distal limb ischemia. Perfusion to this tissue needs to be reestablished within about 6 hours. Delays could occur because
the prehospital care provider failed to consider the kinematics of the injury or overlooked important clues during assessment of the patient.
Although most of these patients have evidence of injury
to the knee, an imprint on the dashboard where the knee
impacted is a key indicator that signiﬁcant energy was
Down-and-Under Path. In a down-and-under path, the occupant moves forward, downward, and out of the seat into the
dashboard (Figure 4-15). The importance of understanding
kinematics is illustrated by the injuries produced to the lower
extremity in this pathway. Because many of the injuries are
difficult to identify, an understanding of the mechanism of
injury is very important.
The foot, if planted on the ﬂoor panel or on the brake pedal
with a straight knee, can twist as the continued torso motion
7/20/10 10:16:41 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
Left subclavian artery
Left subclavian artery
FIGURE 4-14 A. The descending aorta is a fixed structure that moves with the thoracic spine. The arch, aorta, and heart are
freely movable. Acceleration of the torso in a lateral-impact collision or rapid deceleration of the torso in a frontal-impact collision
produces a different rate of motion between the arch-heart complex and the descending aorta. This motion may result in a tear of
the inner lining of the aorta that is contained within the outermost layer, producing a pseudo-aneurysm. B. Tears at the junction of
the arch and descending aorta may also result in a complete rupture, leading to immediate exsanguination in the chest. C and D.
Operative photograph and drawing of a traumatic aortic tear. (A from McSwain NE Jr, Paturas JL: The Basic EMT: Comprehensive
Prehospital Patient Care, ed 2, St. Louis, 2001, Mosby.)
focused on this joint and adjacent structures (Figure 4-17).
Further investigation is needed in the hospital to better eliminate the possible injuries.
When the femur is the point of impact, the energy is
absorbed on the bone shaft, which can then break (Figure 4-18).
The continued forward motion of the pelvis onto the femur
that remains intact can override the femoral head, resulting in
a posterior dislocation of the acetabular joint (Figure 4-19).
After the knees and legs stop their forward motion, the upper
body will bend forward into the steering column or dashboard.
The unrestrained victim may then sustain many of the same
injuries described previously for the up-and-over pathway.
Recognizing these potential injuries and relaying the
information to the ED physicians can result in long-term beneﬁts to the patient.
Rear-impact collisions occur when a slower-moving or stationary vehicle is struck from behind by a vehicle moving
at a faster rate of speed. For ease of understanding, the more
rapidly moving vehicle is called the “bullet vehicle” and the
slower-moving or stopped object is called the “target vehicle.” In such collisions, the energy of the bullet vehicle at the
moment of impact is converted to acceleration of the target
7/20/10 10:16:44 AM
FIGURE 4-15 The occupant and the vehicle travel forward
together. The vehicle stops, and the unrestrained occupant
continues forward until something stops that motion.
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-17 The impact point of the knee on the dashboard
indicates both a down-and-under pathway and a significant
absorption of energy along the lower extremity.
FIGURE 4-16 A. The knee has two possible impact points in
a motor vehicle crash: the femur and the tibia. B. The popliteal
artery lies close to the joint, tightly tied to the femur above and
tibia below. Separation of these two bones stretches, kinks,
and tears the artery.
vehicle and damage results to both vehicles. The greater the
difference in the momentum of the two vehicles, the greater
the force of the initial impact and the more energy is available
to create damage and acceleration.
During a rear-impact collision, the target vehicle in front is
accelerated forward. Everything that is attached to the frame
will also move forward at the same rate of speed. This includes
the seats in which the occupants are riding. The unattached
objects in the vehicle, including the occupants, will begin forward motion only after something in contact with the frame
begins to transmit the energy of the frame motion to these
objects or occupants. As an example, the torso is accelerated by
the back of the seat after some of the energy has been absorbed
by the springs in the seats. If the headrest is improperly positioned behind and below the occiput of the head, the head will
FIGURE 4-18 When the femur is the point of impact, the
energy is absorbed on the bone shaft, which can then break.
FIGURE 4-19 The continued forward motion of the pelvis
onto the femur can override the femur’s head, resulting in a
posterior dislocation of the acetabular joint.
7/20/10 10:16:48 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-22 Lateral impact of the vehicle pushes the
entire vehicle into the unrestrained passenger. A restrained
passenger moves laterally with the vehicle.
FIGURE 4-20 A. A rear-impact collision forces the torso
forward. If the headrest is improperly positioned, the head is
hyperextended over the top of the headrest. B. If the headrest
is up, the head moves with the torso, and neck injury is
begin its forward motion after the torso, resulting in hyperextension of the neck. Shear and stretching of the ligaments and
other support structures, especially in the anterior part of the
neck, can result in injury (Figure 4-20A).
If the headrest is properly positioned, the head moves at
approximately the same time as the torso without hyperextension (Figures 4-20B, 4-21). If the target vehicle is allowed to
move forward without interference until it slows to a stop, the
occupant will probably not suffer signiﬁcant injury because
most of the body’s motion is supported by the seat, similar to
an astronaut launching into orbit.
However, if the vehicle strikes another vehicle or object
or if the driver slams on the brakes and stops suddenly, the
occupants will continue forward, following the characteristic pattern of a frontal-impact collision. The collision then
involves two impacts—rear and frontal. The double impact
increases the likelihood of injury.
Lateral-impact mechanisms come into play when the vehicle
is involved in an intersection (“T-bone”) collision or when
the vehicle veers off the road and impacts sideways a utility pole, tree, or other obstacle on the roadside. If the collision is at an intersection, the target vehicle is accelerated
from the impact in the direction away from the force created
by the bullet vehicle. The side of the vehicle or the door that
is struck is thrust against the side of the occupant. The occupants may then be injured as they are accelerated laterally
(Figure 4-22) or as the passenger compartment is bent inward
by the door’s projection (Figure 4-23). Injury caused by the
If it can be proved that the victim’s headrest was not properly
positioned when the neck injury occurred, some courts consider reducing the liability of the party at fault in the crash
on the grounds that the victim’s negligence contributed to
the injuries (contributory negligence). Similar measures
have been considered in cases of failure to use occupant
restraints. Elderly patients have a high frequency of injury.35
FIGURE 4-21 Head rests.
FIGURE 4-23 Intrusion of the side panels into the passenger
compartment provides another source of injury.
7/20/10 10:16:50 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-24 A. Compression of the shoulder against the clavicle produces midshaft fractures of this bone. B. Compression
against the lateral chest and abdominal wall can fracture ribs and injure the underlying spleen, liver, and kidney. C. Lateral impact
on the femur pushes the head through the acetabulum or fractures the pelvis.
vehicle’s movement is less severe if the occupant is restrained
and moves with the initial motion of the vehicle.9
Five body regions can sustain injury in a lateral impact:
1. Clavicle. The clavicle can be compressed and fractured if
the force is against the shoulder (Figure 4-24).
2. Chest. Compression of the thoracic wall inward can
result in fractured ribs, pulmonary contusion, or compression injury of the solid organs beneath the rib cage,
as well as overpressure injuries (e.g. pneumothorax) (Figure 4-24B). Shear injuries of the aorta can result from the
lateral acceleration (25% of aortic shear injuries occur in
lateral-impact collisions). 10, 11, 12
3. Abdomen and pelvis. The intrusion compresses and
fractures the pelvis and pushes the head of the femur
through the acetabulum (Figure 4-24C). Occupants on
the driver’s side are vulnerable to spleen injuries because
the spleen is on the left side of the body, whereas those
on the passenger side are more likely to receive an injury
to the liver.
4. Neck. The torso can move out from under the head in lateral collisions as well as in rear impacts. The attachment
point of the head is posterior and inferior to the center
of gravity of the head. Therefore, the motion of the head
in relationship to the neck is lateral ﬂexion and rotation. The contralateral side of the spine will be opened
(distraction) and the ipsilateral side compressed. This
can fracture the vertebrae or more likely produce jumped
facets and possible dislocation as well as spinal cord
injury (Figure 4-25).
5. Head. The head can impact the frame of the door.
Near-side impacts produce more injuries than far-side
Rotational-impact collisions occur when one corner of a vehicle strikes an immovable object, the corner of another vehicle,
or a vehicle moving slower or in the opposite direction of
the ﬁrst vehicle. Following Newton’s ﬁrst law of motion, this
corner of the vehicle will stop while the rest of the vehicle
continues its forward motion until all its energy is completely
Rotational-impact collisions result in injuries that are a
combination of those seen in frontal impacts and lateral collisions. The victim continues to move forward and then is hit by
the side of the vehicle (as in a lateral collision) as the vehicle
rotates around the point of impact (Figure 4-26). More severe
injuries are seen in the victim closest to the point of impact.
During a rollover, a vehicle may undergo several impacts at
many different angles, as may the unrestrained occupant’s
body and internal organs (Figure 4-27). Injury and damage
7/20/10 10:16:53 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
Center of gravity
FIGURE 4-25 The center of gravity of the skull is anterior and superior to its pivot point between the skull and cervical spine.
During a lateral impact, when the torso is rapidly accelerated out from under the head, the head turns toward the point of impact,
in both lateral and anterior-posterior angles. Such motion separates the vertebral bodies from the side of opposite impact and
rotates them apart. Jumped facets, ligaments, tears, and lateral compression fractures result.
FIGURE 4-26 The victim in a rotational-impact crash first moves forward and then laterally as the vehicle pivots around the
internal organs still move and can tear at the connecting tissue
areas. More serious injuries result from being unrestrained. In
many cases, the occupants are ejected from the vehicle as it
rolls and are either crushed as the vehicle rolls over them
or sustain injuries from the impact with the ground. If the
occupants are ejected onto the roadway, they can be struck by
oncoming trafﬁc. The NHTSA reports that in crashes involving fatalities in the year 2008, 77% of occupants who were
totally ejected from a vehicle were killed.13
FIGURE 4-27 During a rollover, the unrestrained occupant can
be wholly or partially ejected out of the vehicle or can bounce
around inside the vehicle. This action produces multiple and
somewhat unpredictable injuries that are usually severe.
can occur with each of these impacts. In rollover collisions,
a restrained occupant often sustains shearing-type injuries
because of the signiﬁcant forces created by a rolling vehicle.
The forces are similar to the forces of a spinning carnival ride.
Although the occupants are held securely by restraints, the
The type of vehicles involved in the crash plays a signiﬁcant
role in the potential for injury and death to the occupants.
For example, in a lateral impact between two cars that lack
air bags, the occupants of the car struck on its lateral aspect
are 5.6 times more likely to die than the occupants in the
vehicle striking that car. This can be largely explained by the
relative lack of protection on the side of a car compared with
the large amount of deformation that can occur to the front
end of a vehicle before there is intrusion into the passenger
compartment. However, when the vehicle that is struck in
a lateral collision (by a car) is a sport utility vehicle (SUV),
7/20/10 10:16:54 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-28 A properly positioned seat belt is located below
the anterior-superior iliac spine on each side, above the femur,
and is tight enough to remain in this position. The bowlshaped pelvis protects the soft intra-abdominal organs.
FIGURE 4-29 A seat belt that is incorrectly positioned
above the brim of the pelvis allows the abdominal organs to
be trapped between the moving posterior wall and the belt.
Injuries to the pancreas and other retroperitoneal organs result,
as well as blowout ruptures of the small intestine and colon.
van, or pickup truck rather than a car, the risk of death to
occupants is almost the same for all vehicles involved. Thus,
SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks provide additional protection
to their occupants because the passenger compartment sits
higher off the ground than that of a car, and the occupants
sustain less of a direct blow in a lateral impact.
More serious injuries and a greatly increased risk of death
to vehicle occupants have been documented when a car is
struck on its lateral aspect by a van, SUV, or pickup. In a lateral-impact collision between a van and a car, the occupants
of the car struck broadside are 13 times more likely to die
than those in the van. If the striking vehicle is a pickup truck
or SUV, the occupants of the car struck broadside are 25 to
30 times more likely to die than those in the pickup truck or
SUV. This tremendous disparity results from the higher center of gravity and increased mass of the van, SUV, or pickup
truck. Knowledge of vehicle types in which occupants were
located in a crash may lead the prehospital care provider to
have a higher index of suspicion for serious injury.
strikes the ground (or another object) outside the vehicle. This
second impact can result in injuries that are even more severe
than the initial impact. The risk of death for ejected victims is
six times greater than for those who are not ejected. Clearly,
seat belts save lives.7
The NHTSA reports that 49 states and the District of
Columbia have safety-belt legislation. From 2004 through
2008, more than 75,000 lives were saved by the use of these
restraining devices.15 The NHTSA estimates that over 255,000
lives have been saved in the United States alone since 1975.
Also, the NHTSA reports that over 13,000 lives were saved
by seat belts in the United States in 2008 and that if all occupants wore restraints, the total lives saved would have been
more than 17,000.
What occurs when the victims are restrained? If a seat belt
is positioned properly, the pressure of the impact is absorbed
by the pelvis and the chest, resulting in few, if any, serious
injuries (Figure 4-28). The proper use of restraints transfers
the force of the impact from the patient’s body to the restraint
belts and restraint system. With restraints, the chance of
receiving life-threatening injuries is greatly reduced.7, 15, 16
Seat belts must be worn properly to be effective. An improperly worn belt may not protect against injury in the event of a
crash, and it may even cause injury. When lap belts are worn
loosely or are strapped above the pelvis, compression injuries
of the soft abdominal organs can occur. Injuries of the soft intraabdominal organs (spleen, liver, and pancreas) result from compression between the seat belt and the posterior abdominal wall
(Figure 4-29). Increased intra-abdominal pressure can cause
diaphragmatic rupture and herniation of abdominal organs. Lap
belts should also not be worn alone but in combination with a
Occupant Protective and Restraining Systems
Seat Belts. In the injury patterns described previously, the victims were assumed to be unrestrained. The NHTSA reported
that, in 2008, only 17% of occupants were unrestrained compared with 67% in a 1999 NHTSA report.14 Ejection from
vehicles accounted for approximately 25% of the 44,000
vehicular deaths in 2002. About 77% of passenger vehicle
occupants who were totally ejected were killed;13 1 in 13 ejection victims sustained a spine fracture. After ejection from a
vehicle, the body is subjected to a second impact as the body
7/20/10 10:16:57 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
Front-seat passenger air bags have been shown to be
dangerous to children and small adults, especially when
children are placed in incorrect positions in the front seat or in
incorrectly installed child seats. Children 12 years of age and
younger should always be in the proper restraint device for
their size and should be in the back seat. At least one study
has demonstrated that almost 99% of the parents checked did
not know how to properly install child restraining systems.3
Drivers should always be at least 10 inches (25 cm)
from the air bag cover, and front-seat passengers should be
at least 18 inches (45 cm) away. In most cases, when the
proper seating arrangements and distances are used, air
bag injuries are limited to simple abrasions.
Air bags are now also available in many vehicles in the
sides and tops of the doors.
FIGURE 4-30 Abrasions of the forearm are secondary to rapid
FIGURE 4-32 Air bags.
expansion of the air bag when the hands are tight against the
steering wheel. (From McSwain NE Jr, Paturas JL: The Basic
EMT: Comprehensive Prehospital Patient Care, ed 2, St Louis,
Air Bags. Air bags (in addition to seat belts) provide supple-
FIGURE 4-31 Expansion of the air bag into eyeglasses
produces abrasions. (From McSwain NE Jr, Paturas JL: The
Basic EMT: Comprehensive Prehospital Patient Care, ed 2, St
Louis, 2001, Mosby.)
shoulder restraint. Anterior compression fractures of the lumbar spine can occur as the upper and lower parts of the torso
pivot over the lap belt, especially in the restrained twelfth thoracic (T12), ﬁrst lumbar (L1), and second lumbar (L2) vertebrae.
Many occupants of vehicles still place the diagonal strap under
the arm and not over the shoulder, risking serious injury.
As mandatory laws on seat belt use are passed and
enforced, the overall severity of injuries decreases, and the
number of fatal crashes is signiﬁcantly reduced.
mental protection to the occupant of a vehicle. Originally,
front-seat driver and passenger air bag systems were designed
to cushion the forward motion of only the front-seat occupants. The air bags absorb energy slowly by increasing the
body’s stopping distance. They are extremely effective in
the first collision of frontal and near-frontal impacts (the
65% to 70% of crashes that occur within 30 degrees of the
headlights). However, air bags deflate immediately after the
impact and, therefore, are not effective in multiple-impact or
rear-impact collisions. An air bag deploys and deflates within
0.5 second. As the vehicle veers into the path of an oncoming
vehicle or off the road into a tree after the initial impact, no
air bag protection is left. Side air bags do add to the protection
When air bags deploy, they can produce minor but noticeable injuries that the prehospital care provider needs to manage. These include abrasions of the arms, chest, and face (Figure 4-30); foreign bodies to the face and eyes; and injuries
caused by the occupant’s eyeglasses (Figure 4-31). Air bags
that do not deploy can still be dangerous to both the patient
and the prehospital care provider (Figure 4-32). Air bags
can be deactivated by an extrication specialist trained to do
so properly and safely. Such deactivation should not delay
patient care or extrication of the critical patient.
Air bags pose a signiﬁcant hazard to infants and children if the child is either unrestrained or placed in a rearfacing child seat in the front-passenger compartment. Of the
over 290 deaths from air-bag deployments, almost 70% were
passengers in the front seat, and 90 of those were infants or
7/20/10 10:16:58 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-33 The position of a motorcycle driver is above
the pivot point of the front wheel as the motorcycle impacts an
FIGURE 4-34 The body travels forward and over the
motorcycle, impacting the thighs and the femurs into the
handlebars. The driver can also be ejected.
Motorcycle crashes account for a signiﬁcant number of the
motor vehicle deaths each year. While the laws of physics for motorcycle crashes are the same, the mechanism of
injury varies from automobile and truck crashes. This variance occurs in each of the following types of impacts: headon, angular, and ejection. An additional factor that leads to
increased death, disability, and injury is the lack of structural
framework around the biker that is present in other motor
Because of the lack of restraint, the rider is susceptible to ejection. The rider will continue in ﬂight until the head, arms,
chest, abdomen, or legs strike another object, such as a motor
vehicle, a telephone pole, or the road. Injury will occur at the
point of impact and will radiate to the rest of the body as the
energy is absorbed.7
A head-on collision into a solid object stops the forward
motion of a motorcycle (Figure 4-33). Because the motorcycle’s center of gravity is above and behind the front axle,
which is the pivot point in such a collision, the motorcycle
will tip forward, and the rider will crash into the handlebars.
The rider may receive injuries to the head, chest, abdomen,
or pelvis, depending on which part of the anatomy strikes
the handlebars. If the rider’s feet remain on the pegs of the
motorcycle and the thighs hit the handlebars, the forward
motion will be absorbed by the midshaft of the femur, usually
resulting in bilateral femoral fractures (Figure 4-34). “Openbook” pelvic fractures are a common result of the interaction
between the biker’s pelvis and the handle bars.
In an angular-impact collision, the motorcycle hits an object
at an angle. The motorcycle will then collapse on the rider or
cause the rider to be crushed between the motorcycle and the
object that was struck. Injuries to the upper or lower extremities can occur, resulting in fractures and extensive soft tissue injury (Figure 4-35). Injuries can also occur to organs of
the abdominal cavity as a result of energy exchange.
Many riders do not use proper protection. Protection for
motorcyclists includes boots, leather clothing, and helmets.
Of the three, the helmet affords the best protection. It is built
similar to the skull: strong and supportive externally and
energy-absorbent internally. The helmet’s structure absorbs
much of the impact, thereby decreasing injury to the face,
skull, and brain. Failure to use helmets has been shown to
increase head injuries by more than 300%. The helmet provides only minimal protection for the neck but does not cause
neck injuries. Mandatory helmet laws work. For example,
Louisiana had a 60% reduction in head injuries in the ﬁrst
6 years after passing a helmet law. Most states that have
passed mandatory helmet legislation have found an associated reduction in motorcycle incidents.
“Laying the bike down” is a protective maneuver used by
bikers to separate them from the motorcycle in an impending
crash (Figure 4-36). The rider turns the motorcycle sideways
and drags the inside leg on the ground. This action slows the
rider more than the motorcycle so that the motorcycle will
move out from under the rider. The rider will then slide along
on the pavement but will not be trapped between the motorcycle and any object it hits. These riders usually receive abrasions (“road rash”) and minor fractures but generally avoid
the severe injuries associated with the other types of impact,
unless they directly strike another object (Figure 4-37).
7/20/10 10:16:59 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-35 A. If the motorcycle does not hit an object head-on, it collapses like a pair of scissors. B. This collapse traps the
rider’s lower extremity between the object that was impacted and the motorcycle.
FIGURE 4-36 To prevent being trapped between two pieces
of steel (motorcycle and vehicle), the rider “lays the bike
down” to dissipate the injury. This often causes abrasions
(“road rash”) as the rider’s speed is slowed on the asphalt.
Pedestrian collisions with MVCs have three separate phases,
each with its own injury pattern, as follows:
1. The initial impact is to the legs and sometimes the hips
2. The torso rolls onto the hood of the vehicle (and may
strike the windshield) (Figure 4-38B).
3. The victim falls off the vehicle and onto the ground, usually headﬁrst, with possible cervical spine trauma (Figure
FIGURE 4-37 Road burns after a motorcycle crash without
The injuries produced in pedestrian crashes vary according to the height of the victim and the height of the vehicle
(Figure 4-39). The impact points on a child and an adult
standing in front of a car present different anatomical structures to the vehicles. Because they are shorter, children are
initially struck higher on the body than adults (Figure 4-40A).
The ﬁrst impact generally occurs when the bumper strikes the
child’s legs (above the knees) or pelvis, damaging the femur
or pelvic girdle. The second impact occurs almost instantly
afterward as the front of the vehicle’s hood continues forward
and strikes the child’s thorax. Then, the head and face strike
7/20/10 10:17:01 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-38 A. Phase 1. When a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle, the initial impact is to the legs and sometimes to the hips.
B. Phase 2. The torso of the pedestrian rolls onto the hood of the vehicle. C. Phase 3. The pedestrian falls off the vehicle and hits
FIGURE 4-39 The injuries resulting from vehicle-pedestrian crashes vary according to the height of the victim and the height of
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PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-40 A. The initial impact on a child occurs when the
vehicle strikes the child’s upper leg or pelvis. B. The second
impact occurs when the child’s head and face strike the front or
top of the vehicle’s hood. C. A child may not be thrown clear of
a vehicle but may be trapped and dragged by the vehicle.
the front or top of the vehicle’s hood (Figure 4-40B). Because
of the child’s smaller size and weight, the child may not be
thrown clear of the vehicle, as usually occurs with an adult.
Instead, the child may be dragged by the vehicle while partially under the vehicle’s front end (Figure 4-40C). If the child
falls to the side, the lower limbs may also be run over by a
front wheel. If the child falls backward, ending up completely
under the vehicle, almost any injury can occur (e.g. being
dragged, struck by projections, or run over by a wheel).
If the foot is planted on the ground at the time of impact,
the child will receive energy exchange at the upper leg, hip,
and abdomen. This will force the hips and abdomen away
from the impact. The upper part of the torso will come along
later, as will the planted foot. The energy exchange moving
the torso but not the feet will fracture the pelvis and shear the
femur, producing severe angulation at the point of impact and
possible spine injury as well.
To complicate these injuries further, a child will likely
turn toward the car out of curiosity, exposing the anterior
body and face to injuries, whereas an adult will attempt to
escape and will be hit in the back or the side.
Adults are usually struck ﬁrst by the vehicle’s bumper in the
lower legs, fracturing the tibia and ﬁbula. The collision continues into the pelvis and chest as the victim is impacted. As the
victim is impacted by the front of the vehicle’s hood, depending
on the height of the hood, the abdomen and thorax are struck by
the top of the hood and the windshield. This substantial second
strike can result in fractures of the upper femur, pelvis, ribs,
and spine, producing intra-abdominal or intrathoracic crush
and shear. If the victim’s head strikes the hood or if the victim continues to move up the hood so that the head strikes the
windshield, injury to the face, head, and cervical and thoracic
spine can occur. If the vehicle has a large frontal area (trucks
and SUVs), the entire potential patient is hit simultaneously.
The third impact occurs as the victim is thrown off the
vehicle and strikes the pavement. The victim can receive a
signiﬁcant blow on one side of the body, injuring the hip,
shoulder, and head. Head injury often occurs when the victim
strikes either the vehicle or the pavement. Similarly, because
all three impacts produce sudden, violent movement of the
torso, neck, and head, an unstable spine fracture may result.
After falling, the victim may be struck by a second vehicle
travelling next to or behind the ﬁrst.
As with an adult, any child struck by a vehicle can receive
some type of head injury. Because of the sudden, violent
forces acting on the head, neck, and torso, cervical spine injuries are high on the suspicion list.
Knowing the speciﬁc sequence of multiple impacts in
pedestrian versus motor vehicle crashes and understanding
the multiple underlying injuries that they can produce are
keys to making an initial assessment and determining the
appropriate management of a patient.
Victims of falls can also sustain injury from multiple impacts.
An estimation of the height of the fall, the surface on which the
victim landed, and the part of the body struck ﬁrst are important factors to determine since these are indications of the
energy involved and, thus, the energy exchange that occurred.
Victims who fall from greater heights have a higher incidence
of injury because their velocity increases as they fall. Falls from
greater than three times the height of the victim are frequently
severe. The type of surface on which the victim lands and its
degree of compressibility (ability to be deformed by the transfer
of energy) also have an effect on stopping distance.
The pattern of injury in falls occurring feet ﬁrst is called
the Don Juan syndrome. Only in the movies can the character
Don Juan jump from a high balcony, land on his feet, and
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walk painlessly away. In real life, bilateral fractures of the
calcaneus (heel bone), compression or shear fractures of the
ankles, and distal tibial or ﬁbular fractures are often associated with this syndrome. After the feet land and stop moving,
the legs are the next body part to absorb energy. Tibial plateau
fractures of the knee, long-bone fractures, and hip fractures
can result. The body is compressed by the weight of the head
and torso, which are still moving, and can cause compression fractures of the spinal column in the thoracic and lumbar areas. Hyperﬂexion occurs at each concave bend of the
S-shaped spine, producing compression injuries on the concave side and distraction injuries occur on the convex side.
This victim is often described as breaking his or her “S.”
If a victim falls forward onto the outstretched hands, the
result can be bilateral compression and ﬂexion (Colles’) fractures of the wrists. If the victim did not land on the feet, the
prehospital care provider will assess the part of the body that
struck ﬁrst, evaluate the pathway of energy displacement, and
determine the injury pattern.
If the falling victim lands on the head with the body
almost inline, as often occurs in shallow-water diving injuries, the entire weight and force of the moving torso, pelvis,
and legs compress the head and cervical spine. A fracture of
the cervical spine is a frequent result, as with the up-and-over
pathway of the frontal-impact collision.
Severe injury can occur during many sports or recreational
activities, such as skiing, diving, baseball, and football. These
injuries can be caused by sudden deceleration forces or by
excessive compression, twisting, hyperextension, or hyperﬂexion. In recent years, various sports activities have become
available to a wide spectrum of occasional, recreational participants who often lack the necessary training and conditioning or the proper protective equipment. Recreational sports
and activities include participants of all ages. Sports such as
downhill skiing, waterskiing, bicycling, and skateboarding,
are all potentially high-velocity activities. Other sports, such
as trailbiking, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riding, and snowmobiling, can produce velocity deceleration, collisions, and
impacts similar to motorcycle crashes or MVCs.
The potential injuries of a victim who is in a high-speed
collision and then ejected from a skateboard, snowmobile, or
bicycle are similar to those sustained when a person is ejected
from an automobile at the same speed because the amount of
energy is the same. The speciﬁc mechanisms of MVCs and
motorcycle crashes were described earlier.
The potential mechanisms associated with each sport are
too numerous to list in detail. However, the general principles
are the same as for MVCs. While assessing the mechanism of
injury, the prehospital care provider considers the following
questions to assist in the identiﬁcation of injuries:
What forces acted on the victim, and how?
What are the apparent injuries?
Kinematics of Trauma
To what object or part of the body was the energy
What other injuries are likely to have been produced by
this energy transfer?
Was protective gear being worn?
Was there sudden compression, deceleration, or
What injury-producing movements occurred (e.g. hyperﬂexion, hyperextension, compression, excessive lateral
When the mechanism of injury involves a high-speed collision between two participants, as in a crash between two
skiers, reconstruction of the exact sequence of events from
eyewitness accounts is often difﬁcult. In such crashes, the
injuries sustained by one skier are often guidelines for examination of the other. In general, which part of one victim struck
what part of the other victim and what injury resulted from
the energy transfer are important. For example, if one victim sustains an impact fracture of the hip, a part of the other
skier’s body must have been struck with substantial force and,
therefore, must have sustained a similar high-impact injury.
If the second skier’s head struck the ﬁrst skier’s hip, the prehospital care provider will suspect potentially serious head
injury and an unstable spine for the second skier.
Broken or damaged equipment is also an important indicator of injury and must be included in the evaluation of the
mechanism of injury. A broken sports helmet is evidence of
the magnitude of the force with which it struck. Because skis
are made of highly durable material, a broken ski indicates
that extreme localized force came to bear, even when the
mechanism of injury may appear unimpressive. A snowmobile with a severely dented front end indicates the force with
which it struck a tree. The presence of a broken stick after an
ice hockey skirmish raises the question of whose body broke
it, how, and, speciﬁcally, what part of the victim’s body was
struck by the stick or fell on it.
Victims of signiﬁcant crashes who complain of no apparent injuries must be assessed as if severe injuries exist. The
steps are as follows:
1. Evaluate the patient for life-threatening injury.
2. Evaluate the patient for mechanism of injury. (What happened and exactly how did it happen?)
3. Determine how the forces that produced injury in one
victim may have affected any other person.
4. Determine whether any protective gear was worn (it may
have already been removed).
5. Assess damage to the protective equipment. (What are the
implications of this damage relative to the patient’s body?)
6. Assess the patient for possible associated injuries.
High-speed falls, collisions, and falls from heights without serious injury are common in many contact sports. The
ability of athletes to experience incredible collisions and
falls and sustain only minor injury—largely as a result of
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PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
Bone and shard
penetration in brain
FIGURE 4-41 A bull’s-eye fracture of the windshield is a
major indication of skull impact and energy exchange to both
the skull and the cervical spine.
FIGURE 4-42 As the skull impacts a movable object, pieces of
bone are fractured and are pushed into the brain substance.
impact-absorbing equipment—may be confusing. The potential for injury in sports participants may be overlooked. The
principles of kinematics and careful consideration of the
exact sequence and mechanism of injury will provide insight
into sports collisions in which greater forces than usual came
to bear. Kinematics is an essential tool in identifying possible
underlying injuries and determining which patients require
further evaluation and treatment at a medical facility.
tured skull with resultant concussion, contusions, or lacerations. The brain is soft and compressible; therefore, its length
is shortened. The posterior part of the brain can continue forward, pulling away from the skull, which has already stopped
moving. As the brain separates from the skull, stretching or
breaking (shearing) of brain tissue itself or any blood vessels
in the area occurs (Figure 4-43). Hemorrhage into the epidural,
subdural, or subarachnoid space can then result, as well as diffuse axonal injury of the brain. If the brain separates from the
spinal cord, it will most likely occur at the brain stem.
Regional Effects of Blunt Trauma
The body can be divided into several regions: head, neck,
thorax, abdomen, pelvis, and extremities. Each body region
is subdivided into (1) the external part of the body, usually
composed of skin, bone, soft tissue, vessels, and nerves, and
(2) the internal part of the body, usually vital internal organs.
The injuries produced as a result of shear, cavitation, and
compression forces are used to provide an overview in each
component and region for potential injuries.
Compression. The dome of the skull is fairly strong and can
The only indication that compression and shear injuries have
occurred to the patient’s head may be a soft tissue injury to
the scalp, a contusion of the scalp, or a bull’s-eye fracture of
the windshield (Figure 4-41).
absorb the impact of a collision; however, the cervical spine
is much more flexible. The continued pressure from the
momentum of the torso toward the stationary skull produces
angulation or compression (Figure 4-44). Hyperextension or
hyperflexion of the neck often results in fracture or dislocation of one or more vertebra and injury to the spinal cord. The
result can be jumped (dislocated) facets, potential fractures,
spinal cord compression or unstable neck fractures (Figure
4-45). Direct inline compression crushes the bony vertebral
bodies. Both angulation and inline compression can result in
an unstable spine.
Compression. When the body is travelling forward with the
Shear. The skull’s center of gravity is anterior and cephalad
head leading the way, as in a frontal vehicular crash or a headfirst fall, the head is the first structure to receive the impact
and the energy exchange. The continued momentum of the
torso then compresses the head. The initial energy exchange
occurs on the scalp and the skull. The skull can be compressed and fractured, pushing the broken, bony segments of
the skull into the brain (Figure 4-42).
to the point at which the skull attaches to the bony spine.
Therefore, a lateral impact on the torso when the neck is unrestrained will produce lateral flexion and rotation of the neck
(see Figure 4-25). Extreme flexion or hyperextension may also
cause stretching injuries to the soft tissues of the neck.
Shear. After the skull stops its forward motion, the brain continues to move forward, compressing against the intact or frac-
Compression. If the impact of a collision is centered on the
anterior part of the chest, the sternum will receive the ini-
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Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-43 As the skull stops its forward motion, the brain
continues to move forward. The part of the brain nearest the
impact is compressed, bruised, and perhaps even lacerated.
The portion farthest from the impact is separated from the
skull, with tearing and lacerations of the vessels involved.
tial energy exchange. When the sternum stops moving, the
posterior thoracic wall (muscles and thoracic spine) and the
organs in the thoracic cavity continue to move forward until
the organs strike and are compressed against the sternum.
The continued forward motion of the posterior thorax
bends the ribs. If the tensile strength of the ribs is exceeded,
fractured ribs and a ﬂail chest can develop (Figure 4-46). This
is similar to what happens when a vehicle stops suddenly
against a dirt embankment (see Figure 4-3). The frame of the
vehicle bends, which absorbs some of the energy. The rear of
the vehicle continues to move forward until the bending of
the frame absorbs all the energy. In the same way, the posterior thoracic wall continues to move until the ribs absorb all
Compression of the chest wall is common with frontal and
lateral impacts and produces an interesting phenomenon called
the paper bag effect, which may result in a pneumothorax. A
FIGURE 4-44 The skull frequently stops its forward motion,
but the torso does not. As the brain compresses within the
skull, the torso continues its forward motion until its energy
is absorbed. The weakest point of this forward motion is the
FIGURE 4-45 The spine can be compressed directly along its
own axis or angled in hyperextension or hyperflexion.
FIGURE 4-46 Ribs forced into the thoracic cavity by external
compression, usually fracture in multiple places, producing the
clinical condition known as flail chest.
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effect on lungs
FIGURE 4-47 Compression of the lung against a closed glottis, by impact on either the anterior or the lateral chest wall,
produces an effect similar to compressing a paper bag when the opening is closed tightly by the hands. The paper bag ruptures,
as does the lung.
victim instinctively takes a deep breath and holds it just
before impact. This closes the glottis, effectively sealing off
the lungs. With a signiﬁcant energy exchange on impact and
compression of the chest wall, the lungs may then burst, like
a paper bag full of air that is popped (Figure 4-47). The lungs
can also become compressed and contused, compromising
Compression injuries of the internal structures of the
thorax may also include cardiac contusion, which occurs
as the heart is compressed between the sternum and the
spine and can result in signiﬁcant dysrhythmias. Perhaps a
more frequent injury is compression of the lungs leading to
pulmonary contusion. Although the clinical consequences
may develop over time, immediate loss of the ability of the
patient to properly ventilate may occur. Pulmonary contusion can have consequences in the ﬁeld for the prehospital
provider and for the physicians during resuscitation after
arrival in the hospital. In situations in which long transportation times are required, this condition can play a role en
Shear. The heart, ascending aorta, and aortic arch are relatively unrestrained within the thorax. The descending aorta,
however, is tightly adhered to the posterior thoracic wall
and the vertebral column. The resultant motion of the aorta
is similar to holding the flexible tubes of a stethoscope just
below where the rigid tubes from the earpiece end and swinging the acoustic head of the stethoscope from side to side. As
the skeletal frame stops abruptly in a collision, the heart and
the initial segment of the aorta continue their forward motion.
The shear forces produced can tear the aorta at the junction of
the portion that moves freely with the tightly bound portion
(see Figure 4-14).
An aortic tear may result in an immediate, complete transection of the aorta followed by rapid exsanguination. Some
aortic tears are only partial, and one or more layers of tissue
remain intact. However, the remaining layers are under great
pressure, and a traumatic aneurysm often develops, similar to
the bubble that can form on a weak part of a tire. The aneurysm
can eventually rupture within minutes, hours, or days after
the original injury. Approximately 80% of these patients die
on the scene at the time of the initial impact. Of the remaining 20%, one-third will die within 6 hours, one-third will die
within 24 hours, and one-third will live 3 days or longer. It
is important that the prehospital care provider recognizes the
potential for such injuries and relays this information to the
Compression. Internal organs pressed by the vertebral column
into the steering wheel or dashboard during a frontal collision may rupture. The effect of this sudden increase in pressure is similar to the effect of placing the internal organ on an
anvil and striking it with a hammer. Solid organs frequently
injured in this manner include the pancreas, spleen, liver,
Injury may also result from overpressure in the abdomen. The diaphragm is a 1⁄4-inch thick (5mm) muscle located
across the top of the abdomen that separates the abdominal
cavity from the thoracic cavity. Its contraction causes the
pleural cavity to expand for ventilation. The anterior abdomi-
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Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-48 With increased pressure inside the abdomen,
the diaphragm can rupture.
nal wall comprises two layers of fascia and one very strong
muscle. Laterally, there are three muscle layers with associated fascia, and the lumbar spine and its associated muscles
provide strength to the posterior abdominal wall. The diaphragm is the weakest of all the walls and structures surrounding the abdominal cavity. It may be torn or ruptured
as the intra-abdominal pressure increases (Figure 4-48). This
injury has four common consequences, as follows:
1. The “bellows” effect that is usually created by the diaphragm is lost and ventilation is affected.
2. The abdominal organs can enter the thoracic cavity and
reduce the space available for lung expansion.
3. The displaced organs can become ischemic from compression of their blood supply.
4. If intra-abdominal hemorrhage is present, the blood can
also cause a hemothorax.
Another injury caused by increased abdominal pressure
is from sudden retrograde blood ﬂow up the aorta and against
the aortic valve. This force against the valve can rupture it.
This injury is rare but does exist. It occurs when a collision
with the steering wheel or involvement in another type of
incident (e.g. ditch or tunnel cave-in) has produced a rapid
increase in intra-abdominal pressure. This rapid pressure
increase results in a sudden increase of aortic blood pressure.
Blood is pushed back (retrograde) against the aortic valve
with enough pressure to cause rupture of the valve cusps.
Shear. Injury to the abdominal organs occurs at their points
of attachment to the mesentery. During a collision, the for-
Left lobe of liver
FIGURE 4-49 The liver is not supported by any fixed
structure. Its major support is from the diaphragm, which
moves freely. As the body travels in the down-and-under
pathway, so does the liver. When the torso stops but the liver
does not, the liver continues downward onto the ligamentum
teres, tearing the liver. This is much like pushing a cheesecutting wire into a block of cheese.
ward motion of the body stops, but the organs continue to
move forward, causing tears at the points of attachment of
organs to the abdominal wall. If the organ is attached by a
pedicle (a stalk of tissue), the tear can occur where the pedicle
attaches to the organ, where it attaches to the abdominal wall,
or anywhere along the length of the pedicle (see Figure 4-13).
Organs that can shear this way are the kidneys, small intestine, large intestine, and spleen.
Another type of injury that often occurs during deceleration is laceration of the liver caused by its impact with the
ligamentum teres. The liver is suspended from the diaphragm
but is only minimally attached to the posterior abdomen near
the lumbar vertebrae. The ligamentum teres attaches to the
anterior abdominal wall at the umbilicus and to the left lobe
of the liver in the midline of the body. (The liver is not a
midline structure; it lies more on the right than on the left.)
A down-and-under pathway in a frontal impact or a feetﬁrst fall causes the liver to bring the diaphragm with it as it
descends into the ligamentum teres (Figure 4-49). The ligamentum teres will fracture or transect the liver, analogous to
a cheese slicer cutting cheese.
Pelvic fractures are the result of damage to the external
abdomen and may cause injury to the bladder or lacerations of
the blood vessels in the pelvic cavity. Approximately 10% of
patients with pelvic fractures also have a genitourinary injury.
Pelvic fractures resulting from compression from the
side, usually due to a lateral impact collision have two components. One is the compression of the proximal femur into
the pelvis which pushes the head of the femur through the
acetabulum itself. This frequently produces radiating fractures that involve the entire joint. Further compression of the
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PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
femur and/or of the lateral walls of the pelvis produce compression fractures of the pelvic bones or the ring of the pelvis.
Since a ring generally cannot be fractured in only one place,
this usually means two fractures to the ring; although some of
the fractures may involve the acetabulum.
Shear fractures usually involve the ilium and the sacral
area. This shearing force tears the joint open. Since the joints
in a ring, such as the pelvis, must be generally fractured in
two places, this frequently produces a fracture somewhere
else along the pelvic ring.
The other type of compression fracture occurs anteriorally
to the symphysis pubis when the compression is over. This
will either break the symphysis by pushing in on both sides or
break one side and push it back towards the sacra-iliac joint.
This opens the joint producing the so-called “open-book.”
For more detailed information about pelvic fractures,
Andrew Burgess and his co-authors have discussed these
mechanisms of injury.17
Physics of Penetrating Trauma
The principles of physics discussed earlier are equally important when dealing with penetrating injuries. Again, the kinetic
energy that a striking object transfers to body tissue is represented by the following formula:
KE ϭ 1/2mv2
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be
changed in form. This principle is important in understanding penetrating trauma. For example, although a lead bullet
is in the brass cartridge casing that is ﬁlled with explosive
powder, the bullet has no force. However, when the primer
explodes, the powder burns, producing rapidly expanding
gases that are transformed into force. The bullet then moves
out of the gun and toward its target.
According to Newton’s ﬁrst law of motion, after this force
has acted on the missile, the bullet will remain at that speed
and force until it is acted on by an outside force. When the
bullet hits something, such as a human body, it strikes the individual tissue cells. The energy (speed and mass) of the bullet’s
motion is exchanged for the energy that crushes these cells and
moves them away (cavitation) from the path of the bullet:
Mass ؋ acceleration ؍force ؍mass ؋ deceleration
Factors That Affect the Size of the Frontal Area
The larger the frontal area of the moving missile, the greater is
the number of particles that will be hit—therefore, the greater
the energy exchange that occurs and the larger the cavity that
A munitions factory in Dum Dum, India, manufactured a
bullet that expanded when it hit the skin. Ballistic experts
recognized this design as one that would cause more damage
than is necessary in war; therefore, these bullets were
prohibited in military conflicts. The Petersburg Declaration
of 1868 and the Hague Convention of 1899 affirmed this
principle, denouncing these “dum-dum” projectiles and
other expanding missiles, such as silver tips, hollow-points,
scored-lead cartridges or jackets, and partially jacketed
bullets, and outlawing their use in war.
FIGURE 4-50 Expanding Bullets
is created. The size of the frontal surface area of a projectile
is inﬂuenced by three factors: proﬁle, tumble, and fragmentation. Energy exchange or potential energy exchange can be
analyzed based on these factors.
Profile. Profile describes an object’s initial size and whether
that size changes at the time of impact. The profile, or frontal
area, of an ice pick is much smaller than that of a baseball bat,
which in turn is much smaller than that of a truck. A hollowpoint bullet flattens and spreads on impact (Figure 4-50). This
change enlarges the frontal area so that it hits more tissue particles and produces greater energy exchange. As a result, a
larger cavity forms and more injury occurs.
In general, a bullet should remain very aerodynamic as it
travels through the air en route to the target. Low resistance
while passing through the air (hitting as few air particles as
possible) is a good thing. This will allow it to maintain most
of its speed. To achieve this, the frontal area is kept small in
a conical shape. A lot of drag (resistance to travel) is a bad
thing. A good bullet design would have very little drag while
passing through the air but much more drag when passing
through the body’s tissues. If that missile strikes the skin and
becomes deformed, covering a larger area and creating much
more drag, then a much greater energy exchange will occur.
Therefore, the ideal bullet is designed to keep its shape while
in the air and only deform on impact.
Tumble. Tumble describes whether the object turns over and
over and assumes a different angle inside the body than the
angle it assumed as it entered the body, thus creating more
drag inside the body than in the air. A wedge-shaped bullet’s
center of gravity is located nearer to the base than to the
nose of the bullet. When the nose of the bullet strikes something, it slows rapidly. Momentum continues to carry the
base of the bullet forward, with the center of gravity seeking
to become the leading point of the bullet. A slightly asymmetrical shape causes an end-over-end motion, or tumble.
As the bullet tumbles, the normally horizontal sides of the
bullet become its leading edges, thus striking far more par-
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Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-51 Tumble motion of a missile maximizes its
damage at 90 degrees.
ticles than when bullet was in the air (Figure 4-51). More
energy exchange is produced, and therefore, greater tissue
Fragmentation. Fragmentation describes whether the object
breaks up to produce multiple parts or rubble and, therefore,
more drag and more energy exchange. There are two types of
fragmentation rounds: 1) fragmentation on leaving the weapon,
(e.g. shotgun pellets) (Figure 4-52); and 2) fragmentation after
entering the body. This can be active or passive fragmentation.
Active fragmentation involves a bullet that has an explosive
inside it that detonates inside the skin. Bullets with soft noses
or vertical cuts in the nose and safety slugs that contain many
small fragments to increase body damage by breaking apart on
impact are examples of passive fragmentation. The resulting
mass of fragments creates a larger frontal area than a single
solid bullet, and energy is dispersed rapidly into the tissue. If
the missile shatters, it will spread out over a wider area, with
two results: (1) more tissue particles will be struck by the larger
frontal projection; and (2) the injuries will be distributed over
a larger portion of the body because more organs will be struck
(Figure 4-53). The multiple pieces of shot from a shotgun blast
produce similar results. Shotgun wounds are an excellent
example of the fragmentation injury pattern.
Damage and Energy Levels
The damage caused in a penetrating injury can be estimated
by classifying penetrating objects into three categories according to their energy capacity: low-, medium-, and high-energy
FIGURE 4-52 Maximum fragmentation damage is caused by
Low-energy weapons include hand-driven weapons such as
a knife or an ice pick. These missiles produce damage only
with their sharp points or cutting edges. Because these are
low-velocity injuries, they are usually associated with less
secondary trauma (i.e. less cavitation will occur). Injury in
these victims can be predicted by tracing the path of the
weapon into the body. If the weapon has been removed, the
prehospital care provider should try to identify the type of
FIGURE 4-53 When the missile breaks up into smaller
particles, this fragmentation increases its frontal area and
increases the energy distribution. (From McSwain NE Jr:
Pulmonary chest trauma. In Moylan JA, editor: Principles of
Trauma, New York, 1992, Gower.)
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FIGURE 4-54 The gender of an attacker often determines the trajectory of the wound in stabbing incidents. Male attackers tend
to stab upwards whereas female attackers tend to stab downwards.
The gender of the attacker is an important factor in determining the trajectory of a knife. Men tend to thrust with the
blade on the thumb side of the hand and with an upward or
inward motion, whereas women tend to hold the blade on the
little ﬁnger side and stab downward (Figure 4-54).
An attacker may stab a victim and then move the knife
around inside the body. A simple entrance wound may produce a false sense of security. The entrance wound may be
small, but the damage inside may be extensive. The potential
scope of the movement of the inserted blade is an area of possible damage (Figure 4-55).
Evaluation of the patient for associated injury is important. For example, the diaphragm can reach as high as the nipple line on deep expiration. A stab wound to the lower chest
FIGURE 4-55 Damage produced by a knife depends on the
movement of the blade inside the victim.
can injure intra-abdominal as well as intrathoracic structures,
and a wound of the upper abdomen may also involve the
Penetrating trauma can result from impaled objects such
as fence posts and street signs in vehicle crashes and falls, ski
poles in snow sports, and handlebar injuries in bicycling.
Medium-Energy and High-Energy Weapons
Firearms fall into two groups: medium energy and high energy.
Medium-energy weapons include handguns and some riﬂes
whose muzzle velocity is 1000 ft/sec. The temporary cavity
created by this weapon is three to ﬁve times the caliber of the
bullet. High energy weapons have muzzle velocity in excess
of 2000 ft/sec and signiﬁcantly greater muzzle energy. They
create a temporary cavity 25 times or greater than the caliber
of the bullet. It is obvious that as the amount of gunpowder
in the cartridge increases and the size of the bullet increases,
the speed and mass of the bullet and, therefore, its kinetic
energy increase (Figure 4-56A–B). The mass of the bullet is an
important, but smaller, component (KE 2⁄1 ؍mv2). However,
the bullet mass is not to be discounted. In the War Between
the States, the Kentucky Long riﬂe 0.55 caliber Minie Ball
had almost the same muzzle energy as the modern M16. The
mass of the missile becomes more important when considering the damage produced by a 12-gauge shotgun at close
range or an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Additional
information is available in the blast chapter of the military
edition of PHTLS.
In general, medium-energy and high-energy weapons
damage not only the tissue directly in the path of the missile, but also the tissue involved in the temporary cavity on
each side of the missile’s path. The variables of missile proﬁle, tumble, and fragmentation inﬂuence the rapidity of the
7/20/10 10:17:22 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-56 A. Medium-energy weapons are usually guns that have short barrels and contain cartridges with less power.
B. High-energy weapons. (From McSwain NE Jr, Paturas JL: The Basic EMT: Comprehensive Prehospital Patient Care, ed 2, St
Louis, 2001, Mosby.)
energy exchange and, therefore, the extent and direction of
the injury.(x)*** The force of the tissue particles moved out of
the direct path of the missile compresses and stretches the
surrounding tissue (Figure 4-57).
High-energy weapons discharge high-energy missiles (Figure 4-58A–B). Tissue damage is much more extensive with
a high-energy penetrating object than with one of medium
energy. The vacuum created in the cavity created by this highspeed missile can pull clothing, bacteria, and other debris
from the surface into the wound.
A consideration in predicting the damage from a gunshot
wound is the range or distance from which the gun (either
medium- or high-energy) is ﬁred. Air resistance slows the bullet; therefore, increasing the distance will decrease the energy
at the time of impact and will result in less injury. Most shootings are done at close range with handguns, so the probability
of serious injury is related to both the anatomy involved and
the energy of the weapon rather than loss of kinetic energy.
very little elasticity, so it develops fracture lines and a much
larger, permanent cavity than the same energy exchange in
muscle. 19, 20
Fragmentation. The combination of high-energy weapon with
fragmentation can produce significant damage. If the highenergy missile fragments on impact (which many do not), the
initial entrance site may be very large and may have significant soft tissue injury. On the other hand, if the bullet only
fragments when it hits a hard structure in the body (such as
bone), this large cavitation occurs at this impact point and
the bony fragments themselves become part of the damageproducing component. Significant destruction to the bone
and nearby organs and vessels may result.18
Emil Theodor Kocher, a surgeon living at the latter part of
the 19th century, was extremely active in the understanding of
ballistics and the damage produced by the weapons. He was a
strong advocate of not using the “dum-dum” bullet (produced
Reformation by elastic tissue
Cavitation. Fackler and Malinowski described the unusual
injury pattern of an AK-47. Because of its eccentricity, the
bullet tumbles and travels almost at a right angle to the area
of entrance. During this tumble action, the rotation carries it
over and over so that there are two or sometimes even three
(depending on how long the bullet stays in the body) cavitations. 18 The very high energy exchange produces the cavitation and a significant amount of damage.
The size of the permanent cavity is associated with the
elasticity in the tissue struck by the missile. For example, if
the same bullet going the same speed penetrates both muscle
and the liver, the results are very different. Muscle has much
more elasticity and will expand and return to a relatively
small, permanent cavity. On the other hand, the liver has
Direction of travel
FIGURE 4-57 A bullet crushes tissues directly in its path. A
cavity is created in the wake of the bullet. The crushed part is
permanent. The temporary expansion can also produce injury.
7/20/10 10:17:26 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-58 A. Graze wound to the scalp created by a projectile from a high-velocity weapon. The skull was not fractured.
B. High-velocity gunshot wound to the leg demonstrating the large, permanent cavity.
by the arsenal in Dum Dum, India). 21 The St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868 outlawed explosive projectiles less than 400
grams in weight. This was followed by the Hague Convention
of 1899, which outlawed the use of dum-dum bullets in war.
Entrance and Exit Wounds
Tissue damage will occur at the site of missile entry into the
body, along the path of the penetrating object, and on exit
from the body. Knowledge of the victim’s position, the attacker’s position, and the weapon used is helpful in determining
the path of injury. If the entrance wound and the exit wound
can be related, the anatomical structures that would likely be
in this pathway can be approximated.
Evaluating wound sites provides valuable information
to direct the management of the patient and to relay to the
receiving facility. Do two holes in the victim’s abdomen indicate that a single missile entered and exited or that two missiles entered and are both still inside the patient? Did the missile cross the midline (usually causing more severe injury)
or remain on the same side? In what direction did the mis-
sile travel? What internal organs are likely to have been in its
Entrance and exit wounds usually, but not always, produce identiﬁable injury patterns to soft tissue. Evaluation
of the apparent trajectory of a penetrating object is very
helpful to the clinician. This information should be given
to the physicians in the hospital. On the other hand, prehospital providers (and most physicians) do not have the
experience or the expertise of a forensic pathologist; therefore, the assessment of which wound is an entrance and
which is an exit is fraught with uncertainty. Such information is solely for patient care to try to gauge the trajectory
of the missile and not for legal purposes to determine speciﬁcs about the incident. These two issues should not be
confused. The provider must have as much information as
possible to determine the potential injuries sustained by the
patient and to best decide how the patient is to be managed. The legal issues related to the speciﬁcs of entrance
and exit wounds are best left to others. An entrance wound
from a gunshot lies against the underlying tissue, but an
exit wound has no support. The former is typically a round
or oval wound depending on the entry path, and the latter is
7/20/10 10:17:29 AM
FIGURE 4-59 Entrance wound is round or oval in shape, and
exit wound is stellate or linear.
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-61 Hot gases coming from the end of a muzzle
held in proximity to the skin produce partial-thickness and fullthickness burns on the skin.
FIGURE 4-60 The abraded edge indicates that the bullet
traveled from top right to bottom left.
usually a stellate (starburst) wound (Figure 4-59). Because
the missile is spinning as it enters the skin, it leaves a small
area of abrasion (1 to 2 mm in size) that is pink (Figure
4-60). Abrasion is not present on the exit side. If the muzzle
was placed directly against the skin at the time of discharge,
the expanding gases will enter the tissue and produce crepitus on examination (Figure 4-61). If the muzzle is within
2 to 3 inches (5 to 7 cm), the hot gases that exit will burn the
skin; at 2 to6 inches (5 to 15 cm) the smoke will adhere to
the skin; and inside 10 inches (25 cm) the burning cordite
particles will tattoo the skin with small (1 to 2 mm) burned
areas (Figure 4-62).
FIGURE 4-62 Spin and compression of the bullet on entrance
produce round or oval holes. On exit, the wound is pressed
Regional Effects of Penetrating Trauma
This section discusses the injuries sustained by various parts
of the body during penetrating trauma.
After a missile penetrates the skull, its energy is distributed
within a closed space. Particles accelerating away from the
missile are forced against the unyielding skull, which cannot expand as can skin, muscle or even the abdomen. Thus,
the brain tissue is compressed against the inside of the skull,
producing more injury than would otherwise occur if it
could expand freely. It is similar to putting a ﬁrecracker in
7/20/10 10:17:32 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-63 After a missile penetrates the skull, its energy is
distributed within a closed space. It is like putting a firecracker
in a closed container. If the forces are strong enough, the
container (the skull) may explode from the inside out.
FIGURE 4-64 The bullet may follow the curvature of the
skull. (From McSwain NE Jr, Paturas JL: The Basic EMT:
Comprehensive Prehospital Patient Care, ed 2, St Louis, 2001,
an apple and then placing the apple in a metal can. When the
ﬁrecracker explodes the apple will be destroyed against the
wall of the can. If the forces are strong enough, the skull may
explode from the inside out (Figure 4-63).
A bullet may follow the curvature of the interior of the
skull if it enters at an angle and has insufﬁcient force to exit
the skull. This path can produce signiﬁcant damage (Figure
4-64). Because of this characteristic, small caliber, mediumvelocity weapons, such as the 0.22-caliber or 0.25-caliber pistol, have been called the “assassin’s weapon.” They go in and
exchange all of their energy into the brain.
Vascular System. Smaller vessels that are not attached to the
Three major groups of structures are inside the thoracic cavity: the pulmonary system, vascular system, and gastrointestinal tract. This does not include the bone and muscle of the
chest wall. One or more of the anatomic structures of these
systems may be injured by a penetrating object.
Pulmonary System. Lung tissue is less dense than blood, solid
organs, or bone; therefore, a penetrating object will hit fewer
particles, exchange less energy and do less damage to lung tissue. Damage to the lungs can be clinically significant (Figure
4-65), but fewer than 15% of patients will require surgical
chest wall may be pushed aside without significant damage.
However, larger vessels, such as the aorta and vena cava, are
less mobile because they are tethered to the spine or the heart.
They cannot move aside easily and are more susceptible to
The myocardium (almost totally muscle) stretches as the
bullet passes through and then contracts, leaving a smaller
defect. The thickness of the muscle may control a low-energy
penetration, such as by a knife, or even a small, mediumenergy 0.22-caliber bullet. This closure can prevent immediate exsanguination and allow time to transport the victim to
an appropriate facility.
Gastrointestinal Tract. The esophagus, the part of the gastrointestinal tract that traverses the thoracic cavity, can be penetrated and can leak its contents into the thoracic cavity. The
signs and symptoms of such an injury may be delayed for
several hours or several days.
The abdomen contains structures of three types: air-ﬁlled,
solid, and bony. Penetration by a low-energy missile may
not cause signiﬁcant damage; only 30% of knife wounds
penetrating the abdominal cavity require surgical explora-
7/20/10 10:17:34 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
FIGURE 4-65 Lung damaged produced by the cavity at a
distance from the point of impact.
FIGURE 4-66 Bone fragments become secondary missiles
themselves, producing damage by the same mechanism as the
original penetrating object.
tion to repair damage. A medium-energy injury (e.g. handgun wound) is more damaging; 85% to 95% require surgical repair. However, in injuries caused by medium-energy
missiles, the damage to solid and vascular structures frequently does not produce immediate exsanguination. This
enables prehospital care providers to transport the patient
to an appropriate facility in time for effective surgical
barrels may be shortened (“sawed off”) to prematurely widen
the trajectory of the missiles.
Although shotguns may use various types of ammunition, the structure of most shotgun shells is similar. A typical
shotgun shell contains gunpowder, wadding, and projectiles.
When discharged, all these individual components are propelled from the muzzle and can inﬂict injury on the victim.
Certain types of gunpowder can stipple (“tattoo”) the skin in
close-range injuries. Wadding, which is usually lubricated
paper, ﬁbers, or plastic used to separate the shot (missiles)
from the charge of gunpowder, can provide another source of
infection in the wound if not removed. The missiles can vary
in size, weight, and composition. A wide variety of missiles
are available, from compressed metal powders to birdshot
(small metal pellets), buckshot (larger metal pellets), slugs (a
single metal missile), and more recently, plastic and rubber
alternatives. The average shell is loaded with 1 to 11⁄2 ounces
of shot. Fillers that are placed with the shot (polyethylene or
polypropylene granules) can become embedded in the superﬁcial layers of the skin.
An average birdshot shell may contain 200 to 2000 pellets, whereas a buckshot shell may contain only 6 to 20 pellets (Figure 4-67). It is important to note that as the size of
the buckshot pellets increases, they approach the wounding
characteristics of 0.22-caliber missiles in regard to effective
range and energy transfer characteristics. Larger or “magnum”
shells are also available. These shells may contain more shot
and a larger charge of gunpowder or only the larger powder
charge to boost the muzzle velocity of the shot.
The type of ammunition used is important in gauging
injuries, but the range (distance) at which the patient was
shot provides the most important variable when evaluating
the shotgun-injury victim. Shotguns eject a large number of
Penetrating injuries to the extremities can include damage to
bones, muscles, nerves, or vessels. When bones are hit, bony
fragments become secondary missiles, lacerating surrounding tissue (Figure 4-66). Muscles often expand away from the
path of the missile, causing hemorrhage. The missile may
penetrate blood vessels, or a near-miss may damage the lining
of a blood vessel, causing clotting and obstruction of the vessel within minutes or hours.
Although shotguns are not high-velocity weapons, they are
high-energy weapons and, at close range, they can be more
lethal than some of the highest-energy riﬂes. Handguns and
riﬂes predominantly use riﬂing (grooves) on the inside of the
barrel to spin a single missile in a ﬂight pattern toward the
target. In contrast, most shotguns possess a smooth, cylindrical tube barrel that directs a load of missiles in the direction
of the target. Devices known as chokes and diverters can be
attached to the end of a shotgun barrel to shape and form the
column of missiles into speciﬁc patterns (e.g. cylindrical or
rectangular). Regardless, when a shotgun is ﬁred, a large number of missiles are ejected in a spread, or spray, pattern. The
7/20/10 10:17:36 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
FIGURE 4-67 A. An average birdshot shell may contain 200 to 2000 pellets. B. A buckshot shell may contain only 6 to 20 pellets.
missiles, most of which are spherical. These projectiles are
especially susceptible to the effects of air resistance, thereby
quickly slowing once they exit the muzzle (Figure 4-68). The
effect of air resistance on the projectiles decreases the effective range of the weapon and changes the basic characteristics of the wounds that it generates. Consequently, shotgun
wounds have been classiﬁed into four major categories: contact, close-range, intermediate-range, and long-range wounds
Contact wounds occur when the muzzle is touching the
victim at the time the weapon is discharged. This typically
results in circular entrance wounds, which may or may not
have soot or an imprint of the muzzle (see Figure 4-61). Searing or burning of the wound edges is common, secondary to
the high temperatures and the expansion of hot gases as the
Most serious human wounds
Effective range on game
FIGURE 4-68 The diameter of the spread of a shot column
expands as range increases. (From DeMuth WE: The
mechanism of gunshot wounds. J Trauma 11:219, 1971.)
missiles exit the muzzle. Some contact wounds may be more
stellate (star-shaped) in appearance, caused by the superheated
gases from the barrel escaping from the tissue. Contact wounds
usually result in widespread tissue damage and are associated
with high mortality. The length of a standard shotgun barrel
makes it difﬁcult to commit suicide with this weapon, since it
is difﬁcult to reach and pull the trigger. Such attempts usually
result in a split face without the shot reaching the brain.
Close-range wounds (less than 6 feet), although still typically characterized by circular entrance wounds, will likely
have more evidence of soot, gunpowder, or ﬁller stippling
around the wound margins than contact wounds. Additionally, abrasions and markings from the impact of the wadding
that coincide with the wounds from the missiles may be
found. Close-range wounds also create signiﬁcant damage in
the patient; missiles ﬁred from this range still retain sufﬁcient
energy to penetrate deep structures and exhibit a slightly
wider spread pattern. This increases the extent of injury as
missiles travel through soft tissue.
Intermediate-range wounds are characterized by the
appearance of satellite pellet holes emerging from the border
around a central entrance wound. This pattern is a result of
individual pellets spreading from the main column of shot
and generally occurs at a range of 6 to 18 feet. These injuries are a mixture of deep, penetrating wounds and superﬁcial wounds and abrasions. Because of the deep, penetrating
components of this injury, however, victims may still have a
relatively high mortality rate.
7/20/10 10:17:37 AM
Kinematics of Trauma
Widespread tissue damage
Penetrates beyond deep fascia
Penetrates SQ tissue and deep fascia
Superficial skin penetration
Modified from: Sherman RT, Parrish RA: Management of shotgun injuries: a review of 152 cases. J Trauma 18:236, 1978.
FIGURE 4-69 Patterns of shotgun injury.
Long-range wounds are rarely lethal. These wounds are
typically characterized by the classic spread of scattered pellet wounds and result from a range of greater than 18 feet.
However, even at these slower velocities, the pellets can cause
signiﬁcant damage to certain sensitive tissues (e.g. eyes). In
addition, larger buckshot pellets can retain sufﬁcient velocity
to inﬂict damage to deep structures, even at long range. The
prehospital care provider also needs to consider the cumulative effects of many small missile wounds and their locations,
focusing on sensitive tissues. Adequate exposure is essential
when examining all patients involved in trauma, and shotgun
injuries are no exception.
These varying characteristics need to be taken into
account when evaluating injury patterns in patients with
shotgun injuries. For example, a single, circular, shotgun
wound could represent a contact or close-range injury with
birdshot or buckshot in which the missiles have retained a
tight column or grouping. Conversely, this may also represent an intermediate-range to long-range injury with a slug or
solitary missile. Only detailed examination of the wound will
allow differentiation of these injuries that will likely involve
signiﬁcant damage to internal structures despite strikingly
different missile characteristics.
Contact and close-range wounds to the chest may result
in a large, visually impressive wound resulting in an open
pneumothorax, and bowel may eviscerate from such wounds
to the abdomen. On occasion, a single pellet from an intermediate-range wound may penetrate deep enough to perforate
the bowel, leading eventually to peritonitis, or may damage a
major artery, resulting in vascular compromise to an extremity. Alternatively, a patient who exhibits multiple small
wounds in a spread pattern may have dozens of entrance
wounds. However, none of the missiles may have retained
enough energy to penetrate through fascia, let alone produce
signiﬁcant damage to internal structures.
Although immediate patient care must always remain the
priority, any information (shell type, suspected range of the
patient from the weapon, number of shots ﬁred) that prehospital care providers can gather from the scene and relay to the
receiving facility can assist with appropriate diagnostic evaluation and treatment of the shotgun-injured patient. Furthermore, recognition of various wound types can aid providers
in maintaining a high index of suspicion for internal injury
regardless of the initial impression of the injury.
Injury from Explosions
Explosive devices are the most frequently used weapons in
combat and by terrorists. Explosive devices cause human injury
by multiple mechanisms, some of which are exceedingly complex. The greatest challenges for clinicians at all levels of care
in the aftermath of an explosion are the large numbers of casualties and multiple, penetrating injuries (Figure 4-70).23
Physics of Blast
Explosions are physical, chemical, or nuclear reactions that
result in the almost instantaneous release of large amounts of
energy in the form of heat and rapidly expanding, highly compressed gas, capable of projecting fragments at extremely high
velocities. The energy associated with an explosion can take
multiple forms: kinetic and heat energy in the “blast wave;”
kinetic energy of fragments formed by the breakup of the weapon
casing and surrounding debris; and electromagnetic energy.
Blast waves can travel at greater than16,400 feet (5000
meters)/second and are composed of static and dynamic components. The static component (“blast overpressure”) surrounds
7/20/10 10:17:41 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
Positive phase impulse
(change of overpressure
End of positive phase
Time of arrival
FIGURE 4-71 Pressure-time history of a blast wave. This
FIGURE 4-70 Patient with multiple fragment wounds from a
objects in the ﬂow ﬁeld of the explosion, loading them on all
sides with a discontinuous rise in pressure called the “shock
front” or “shock wave” up to a “peak overpressure” value. Following the shock front, the overpressure drops down to ambient pressure, and then a partial vacuum is often formed as a
result of air being sucked back (Figure 4-71). The dynamic component (“dynamic pressure”) is directional and is experienced
as a blast “wind.” The primary signiﬁcance of the blast wind is
that it propels fragments at speeds in excess of several thousand
meters per second (faster than standard ballistic weapons such
as bullets and shells).24 Whereas the effective range of both the
static and dynamic pressure is measured in tens of feet, the fragments accelerated by the dynamic pressure will quickly outpace the blast wave to become the dominant cause of injury out
to ranges of thousands of feet.
Interaction of Blast Waves with the Body
Blast waves interact with the body and other structures by
transmitting energy from the blast wave into the structure.
This energy causes the structure to deform in a manner dependent on the strength and the natural period of oscillation of
the structure being affected. Changing density interfaces
within a structure cause complex re-formations, convergences, and couplings of the transmitted blast waves. This occurs
particularly with large density interfaces such as solid tissue
to air or liquid (e.g. lung, heart, liver, and bowel).
Injuries from explosions are generally classiﬁed as primary,
secondary, tertiary, quaternary, and quinary after the injury
taxonomy described in Department of Defense Directive
6025.21E24 (Figure 4-72, Figure 4-73). Detonation of an explo-
graph shows the sudden massive increase in pressure (blast
overpressure) following the decrease in pressure and negative
pressure phase. (From Bowen TE and Bellamy RF, editors,
Emergency War Surgery, Washington, DC, 1988, United States
Government Printing Office.)
sive device sets off a chain of interactions in the objects and
people in its path.23 If an individual is close enough, the initial
blast wave increases pressure in the body, causing stress and
shear, particularly in gas-ﬁlled organs such as the ears, lungs,
and (rarely) bowels. These primary blast injuries are more
prevalent when the explosion occurs in an enclosed space
because the blast wave bounces off surfaces, thus enhancing the
destructive potential of the pressure waves.25 Immediate death
from pulmonary barotrauma (blast lung) occurs more often in
enclosed-space than in open-air bombings.26, 27, 28 Most (95%)
explosion injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan occur in open-space
explosions.29 The most common form of primary blast injury
is tympanic membrane rupture.30, 31 Tympanic membrane rupture, which may occur at pressures as low as 5 psi,32, 33 is often
the only signiﬁcant overpressure injury experienced. The next
major injury occurs at less than 40 psi, a threshold known to be
associated with pulmonary injuries including pneumothorax,
air embolism, interstitial and subcutaneous emphysema, and
pneuomediastinum.34 Data from burned soldiers from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) conﬁrm that tympanic membrane
rupture is not predictive of lung injury.
The shock front of the blast wave quickly dissipates and is
followed by the blast wind, which propels fragments to create
multiple penetrating injuries. Although these are termed secondary injuries, they are usually the predominant wounding
agent.23 The blast wind also propels large objects into people
or people onto hard surfaces (whole or partial body translocation), creating blunt (tertiary blast) injuries; this category of
injury also includes crush injuries caused by structural collapse.34 Heat, ﬂames, gas, and smoke generated during explosions cause quaternary injuries that include burns, inhalation
injury, and asphyxiation.25 Quinary injuries are produced
when bacteria, chemicals, or radioactive materials are added
to the explosive device and released upon detonation.
7/20/10 10:17:41 AM
Produced by contact of blast shockwave with body
Stress and shear waves occur in tissues
Waves reinforced/reflected at tissue density interfaces
Gas-filled organs (lungs, ears, etc.) at particular risk Tympanic
Ballistic wounds produced by:
Primary fragments (pieces of exploding weapon)
Secondary fragments (environmental fragments, e.g. glass)
Threat of fragment injury extends further than that
from blast wave
Blast wave propels individuals onto surfaces/objects or objects
onto individuals, causing whole body translocation
Crush injuries caused by structural damage and
Other explosion-related injuries, illnesses, or diseases
Kinematics of Trauma
Tympanic membrane rupture
Toxic gas and other
Injury from environmental
Injuries resulting from specific additives such as bacteria and
radiation (“dirty bombs”)
From: NAEMT: PHTLS Prehospital Trauma Life Support: Military edition, ed 7, St Louis, 2011, Mosby.
FIGURE 4-72 Blast Injury Categories
Injury from Fragments
Conventional explosive weapons are designed to maximize
damage caused by fragments. With initial velocities of many
thousands of feet per second, the distance that fragments may
be thrown for a 50-lb (23-kg) bomb will be well over 1000 feet
(0.3 km), whereas the lethal radius of the blast overpressure
is approximately 50 feet (15 meters). The developers of both
military and terrorist weapons, therefore, design weapons to
maximize fragmentation injury so as to signiﬁcantly increase
the damage radius of a free-ﬁeld explosive.
Very few explosive devices cause injury solely by blast
overpressure, and serious primary blast injury is relatively
rare compared to the predominant numbers of secondary and
tertiary injuries. Thus, few patients have injuries dominated
by primary blast effects. The entire array of explosion-related
injuries is often referred to en masse as “blast injuries,” leading to major confusion as to what constitutes a blast injury.
Because energy from the blast wave dissipates rapidly, most
explosive devices are constructed to cause damage primarily
from fragments. These may be primary fragments generated
through the breakup of the casing surrounding the explosive
or secondary fragments created from debris in the surrounding
environment. Regardless of whether the fragments are created
from shattered munitions casing, ﬂying debris, or embedded
objects that terrorists often pack into homemade bombs, they
shift 130 ft.
damage 80 ft.
rupture 50 ft.
220 charge weight
No fragment injury = no blast over pressure
FIGURE 4-73 Morbidity and mortality as a function of
distance from open-space detonation of a 22-lb (100-kg)
exponentially increase the range and lethality of explosives
and are the primary cause of explosion-related injury.
In addition to the direct effects of an explosion, healthcare
providers must be mindful of the other causes of injury from
attacks with explosions. For instance, an IED that targets a
7/20/10 10:17:43 AM
PREHOSPITAL TRAUMA LIFE SUPPORT
vehicle may result in minimal initial damage to the vehicle
occupants. However, the vehicle itself may be displaced
vertically or vectored off course resulting in occupant blunt
trauma from collision, from ﬂipping upside down as part
of the vertical displacement process, or from rollover, for
instance, down an embankment or culvert. In these circumstances, occupants sustain injury based on the mechanisms
previously described for blunt trauma. In the military setting, a vehicle’s occupants may be afforded some protection
from blunt injury by virtue of their body armor. Furthermore,
the occupants of a vehicle disabled following an IED attack
may be attacked with gunﬁre as they exit the vehicle and
are subject to ambush, thus potentially becoming victims of
The assessment of a trauma patient must involve knowledge of kinematics. For example, a driver who hits the
steering wheel (blunt trauma) will have a large cavity in
the anterior chest at the time of impact; however, the chest
rapidly returns to, or near to, its original shape as the driver
rebounds from the steering wheel. If two prehospital care
providers examine the patient separately—one who understands kinematics and another who does not—the one without knowledge of kinematics will be concerned only with
the bruise visible on the patient’s chest. The prehospital
care provider who understands kinematics will recognize
that a large cavity was present at the time of impact, that the
ribs had to bend in for the cavity to form, and that the heart,
lungs, and great vessels were compressed by the formation
of the cavity. Therefore, the knowledgeable provider will
suspect injury to the heart, lungs, great vessels, and chest
wall. The other prehospital care provider will not even be
aware of these possibilities.
The knowledgeable prehospital care provider suspecting serious intrathoracic injuries will assess for these potential injuries, manage the patient, and initiate transport more
aggressively, rather than react to what otherwise appears to be
only a minor, closed, soft-tissue injury. Early identiﬁcation,
adequate understanding, and appropriate treatment of underlying injury will signiﬁcantly inﬂuence whether a patient
lives or dies.
Integrating the principles of the kinematics of trauma into
the assessment of the trauma patient is key to discovering
the potential for severe or life-threatening injuries.
Up to 95% of the injuries can be anticipated by understanding the energy exchange that occurs with the human
body at the time of a collision. Knowledge of kinematics
allows for injuries that are not immediately apparent to
be identiﬁed and treated appropriately. Left unsuspected,
undetected, and therefore untreated, these injuries contribute signiﬁcantly to morbidity and mortality resulting
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in
form. The kinetic energy of an object, expressed as a function of both velocity (speed) and mass (weight), is transferred to another object on contact.
Damage to the object or body tissue impacted is not only a
function of the amount of kinetic energy applied to it, but
also a function of the tissue’s ability to tolerate the forces
applied to it.
Energy-absorbing protective devices are very important.
These include seat belts, air bags, drop-down engines, and
energy-absorbing auto parts, such as bumpers, collapsible
steering wheels, dashboards, and helmets. On arrival, the
damage to the vehicles and the direction of the impact
will indicate which victims are most likely to have been
more severely injured.
Pedestrian injures vary according to the height of the victim and which part of the patient had direct contact with
Distance travelled before impact affects the severity of the
Energy-absorbing capability of the target at the end of the
fall (concrete versus soft snow) affects the severity of the
Victim body parts that hit the target and progression
of the energy exchange through the victim’s body are
The direction of the impact determines the pattern of and
potential for injury: frontal, lateral, rear, rotational, rollover, or angular.
Ejection from a car reduces the protection on impact.
The energy varies depending on the primary injuring
Low energy—handheld cutting devices
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The distance of the victim to the perpetrator and the
objects that the bullet might have struck will affect the
amount of energy at the time of impact with the body
and, therefore, the available energy to be dissipated into
the patient to produce damage to the body parts.
Organs in proximity of the pathway of the penetrating
object determine the potential life-threatening conditions
The pathway of the penetrating trauma is determined by
the wound of entrance and the wound of exit.
Kinematics of Trauma
There are 5 types of injury in a blast:
Secondary—projectiles (the most common source of
injury from blasts)
Tertiary—propulsion of the body into another object
Quaternary—heat and ﬂames
Quinary—Radiation, chemicals, bacteria.
Patient #1: Driver of the vehicle with side impact. Two bullets
traversed the door of the car. The patient has two left-side
bullet wounds, one below the ribs and one above the ribs.
The patient’s blood pressure was low; therefore, the likely
injuries in the chest include pneumothorax, hemothorax,
penetration of the heart, and possibly major vessels. Below
the ribs, penetration into the abdominal cavity could involve
any of the abdominal organs with associated hemorrhage.
Patient #2: Passenger side with side impact of car.
Because of the energy exchanged between the door and the
occupant, you should suspect injury in all four side impact
areas—the shoulder (clavicle), chest wall and the thoracic
cavity, the abdominal cavity, and the pelvis. The potential
injuries in these areas include: 1) fractured clavicle; 2)
fractured ribs (potential flail chest); 3) pulmonary contusions;
4) sheering related to the aorta; 5) pneumothorax; 6)
abdomen (fractured liver or spleen); 7) deceleration injury
to the kidney; 8) fractured pelvis; and 9) rotational injury of
the cervical spine.
Patient #3: Driver of the vehicle. With the bent steering
wheel, you suspect an up-and-over pathway at the time of
the collision into the pole, with frontal chest impact into
the steering wheel and head impact into the windshield.
Potential injuries include: 1) myocardial contusion; 2)
pneumothorax; 3) flail chest; 4) pulmonary contusion; 5)
overpressure injury in the abdomen; 6) fractured liver and
spleen; 7) cervical spine facture; and 8) brain injury.
Patient #4: You suspect down-and-under pathway: 1)
fracture of the lower extremities (ankle, shaft of the femur,
hip dislocation; 2) facial injuries; and 3) cervical spine
One other additional important assessment to consider:
How did the bullet holes get in the first car? Did you search
the occupants for weapons?
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